The football match that was more like a night at the opera

When Richard Fleming travelled to North Korea he almost started a diplomatic incident because he could not pay his five-star bill for his one-star hotel…

EXPENSES – a word to strike fear in football writers during these times of recession with sports desks eager to cut costs wherever they can. No more flying at the sharp end of a plane, go over £25 for dinner at your peril and any wine is vino plonko.

When Richard Fleming went to Pyongyang, capital of North Korea which is rated 199th out of 276 cities in the cost of living index, the amount of spending money he should have needed was hardly likely to have the BBC accounts department reaching for their worry beads.

Wrong. In a country where stories of people having to eat grass or the bark of trees are common, Fleming’s week-long trip proved to be so expensive it almost caused a diplomatic incident. Welcome to the world of the most secretive nation on the planet.

Fleming travelled to Pyongyang to cover a 2006 World Cup qualifying tie between North Korea and Bahrain. FIFA regulations stipulate that the media must be allowed in to cover the game and representing the World Service, Fleming obtained a visa. “I was the first sports journalist from the BBC inside North Korea,” said Fleming with mixed pride.

Football-wise North Korea will forever be remembered as the team that beat Italy 1-0 at Middlesbrough in the 1966 World Cup finals, Pak Doo-Ik scoring the goal that makes him his country’s most famous sportsman ahead, even, of Kim Jong-il, the Dear Leader who shot an amazing 11 holes in one in 1994 to achieve an unprecedented 38-under par round on a regulation 18-hole golf course at his first attempt at golf. Not a single person in North Korea doubted this.

Fleming flew to Pyongyang via Beijing, the last leg of the flight on Air Koryo, the national airline of North Korea. “Ours was the only plane on the runway when we landed,” said Fleming. “Passengers walked to the terminal building which was like something out of a James Bond movie. It was cold, grey and absolutely emotionless.

“There was someone with a BBC sign waiting to greet me. I knew it was going to be a bumpy ride when three people picked me up from the airport, a driver and two National Olympic Committee members.

“The match was on a Thursday and I arrived the previous Saturday. The rest of the travelling media didn’t turn up until Tuesday so for the first three days I was the only member of the press in the hotel which probably housed around 500 guests.

“The main problem I had was that I did not know the cost of the hotel or food, there was no way of finding out. In terms of being able to budget for the trip, it was virtually impossible.”

Estimating for a worst case scenario Fleming doubled what he thought his week in Pyongyang would cost.

He said: “You have to pay in hard currency, no credit cards, and I took dollars. On the Monday or Tuesday there were some questions being asked about my bill. One of my minders, because that’s what they were, came to me and said: ‘Mr Richard, we have to sort your bill out.’

“I told him ‘no problems’ and he would then change the subject. When it came to the Thursday, the day of the match but two days before I was due to leave, the minder said: ‘We need to sort out your bill but first you must pay for your accreditation.’”

That, he was told, would be £500. Yes, £500.

The accreditation cost, which the media are never charged for, was in fact to help offset Fleming’s bill. “The final cost of £2,000 was three times what I’d expected. And remember I’d doubled the estimate. The hotel was basic, with stodgy meals comprising dumplings and potatoes.”

The bug in the room so the person listening to Fleming’s phone calls came at no extra charge,
Not only did Fleming have a huge bill, he also had a big problem. He did not have sufficient funds to cover the extortionate cost of staying in what was, at best, a hostel charging five-star hotel prices.

Fortunately Fleming had arranged a meal with the British Ambassador, David Slinn, plus the nine surviving members of the North Korea 1966 World Cup squad. Fleming’s minders, who never allowed him to leave the hotel alone – drove him to the embassy compound.

“A guard with a semi-automatic rifle came over to the car, the window was lowered and one of the so-called members of the National Olympic Committee opened his jacket and showed a badge at which point the guard stepped back and we were allowed through. It was obvious these guys were secret service.”

Fleming’s concern was that if he could not pay his bill he would not be allowed out of the country

“When I met Slinn the first thing I said was: ‘I have a problem.’ He said: ‘I know, let’s go and have a drink.’ And he handed me a Boddingtons.”

As you do in Pyongyang.

“I asked Slinn if he was in a position to help me get out of Pyongyang. He asked me how much we were talking about, he went to his personal safe and came back with the money. This goes against what ambassadors overseas are advised to do. If a Briton abroad has his cash stolen the embassy support would normally take them to an ATM but that was impossible in Pyongyang.”

The financial crisis seemingly averted, Fleming sat down for dinner and through an interpreter chatted to the players, last seen wearing the North Korea shirt but who were now in Army uniforms.

“They were all given high-powered positions within various state-owned companies. I spoke to Pak Doo-ik at great length and he still has very fond memories of his time in the north-east. They still have their shirts and some they swapped with other players. They remember the warmth of the Middlesbrough people and their broad smiles when they recalled Ayresome Park made it obvious how much it still means to them.

“He is not really aware of his world fame because superstars do not exist in North Korea, apart from the Great Leader and his son [Kim Jong-il].

“One of the things they could not get their heads around was the money footballers make these days. They had recently returned to Middlesbrough for a TV documentary, The Day Of Their Life. When it was shown to the players it was censored despite being non-political and extremely positive about the country.”

Match day was another grey day. “The national stadium was soulless, packed to the rafters but with little or no atmosphere, no scarves, no songs…it was colourless. The spectators would clap at the right times, it was almost like being at the opera.”

There wasn’t much too much to clap as Bahrain won 2-1.

Fleming looks back on Pyongyang with frustration, mainly because of the restrictions placed on him. Wherever he went a minder would follow, even when he went to the toilet which was darkened because of power cuts.

“They obviously became jittery leaving me alone. As I stood at the urinal, the next thing I knew a minder was on my shoulder with a lighter. ‘You can see now Mr Richard,’ he said.

“I was taken to various places, always under supervision. I went to their equivalent of Hollywood with a film set they thought depicted Western Europe. It was like something from the Sound Of Music. Their US city was more like Havana, they were just trapped in a time-warp.

“The Great Leader was a massive film buff and would often turn up at the studio and take over the directing for an hour.

“When I went to the mausoleum where Kim Il-song lays in state it was incredible. Once a year North Korean people must go to pay their respects…there was a kind of conveyor belt ferrying people along and not one would make eye contact with me. The fear factor is terrifying.

“They had five or six television channels, all but one in Korean. I remember the newsreader on one channel always shouted the news. I could also access a very grainy BBC World until mid-way through the trip when it was scrambled. It was only when I returned to the UK the penny dropped. It was because Condoleeza Rice, the US secretary of state, was visiting South Korea.

“I was not allowed to bring in a mobile phone or lap-top so I had no form of communication with the outside world. The landline in my room was bugged. I had in effect no contact with anyone outside of North Korea. I was completely unaware of what was happening elsewhere.

“Of course for most North Koreans it’s been that way all their lives. Their history books run along different lines to the rest of the world. In 1945 their belief is that Kim Il-sung and his band of merry men, like a sort of A-Team, ousted the Japanese from North Korea. “

The bill was eventually paid, its inflated price including the cost of his three minders’ salary for the week, their leather jackets and Armani glasses not in keeping with the attire of most North Koreans.

Fleming said: “It was a fascinating if worrying insight into how an entire nation can be brainwashed and remain so isolated from the outside world. Sport is supposed to unite the divide but the coach of North Korea’s 2010 World Cup side was punished for the team’s poor performances in South Africa. He was last heard of breaking rocks.”

And not in the hot sun.

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