(an earlier version of this article was published in Polish by Tygodnik Powszechny in May 2016)
The Pyongyang Marathon is not your standard marathon as the place where it happens is no ordinary location. North Korea is one of the least visited countries. It is ruled by the most controlling and the most unpredictable regime in the world. The regime controls the population, starves it if needed, supports one of the largest armies in the world of over 2 million people, and threatens the world peace every second week only this year. It is a combination of a mysterious, different land, a promise of a world ruled by strange laws, and an intensive sportive activity. Traveling and running combo: my kind of thing.
The Pyongyang government only opens for tourism to gather some financial resources. Dollars and Euros are very precious for the otherwise US- and EU- leaders hating. It licenses just a handful of tourist agencies to bring foreigners into the country. The Pyongyang Marathon is served by some of them. One of them is called Koryo Group and operates from Beijing and Shanghai. This British-run agency has a license to bring foreigners to the Marathon and the two other events which shall take place on the day: the 10 km and half marathon. By 1 February 2016, the race was fully registered. I opted for a 2-and-a-half-day stay in the North Korean capital, which was less than 1,000 Euros. This included a return ticket from Beijing, hotel, food in Pyongyang and the race registration. There were some 600 people from outside of North Korea who were signed up for one of the races.
My expectations from the race included the big unknowns, such as:
- how will the race be organized?
- how about the cultural differences?
- will there be enough water and food during the race?
My expectations were based on a positive feeling I got from my preparatory phase, when I was running a lot, and fast, and long distances. I felt strong and powerful and motivated to run, to finish and to finish under four hours. This was a strange rule of the race: the cut-off time for the 10km runners was 2h, 2h30 for the half marathoners and for the full marathoners – only 4h. The organisers were very generous for the 10k runners. The organisers were kind for the half marathoners. The organisers were cruel with the marathoners. Pure math suggests that the cut-off time for the full marathon should be at least double than the cut-off time for the half-marathon. This whould have been 5h. Will this be important on Sunday, 10 April? I felt I was ready for some 3:40s, but theory is one thing, and life is another…
The participation in the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon was suspended for foreigners until the very last minute. The reason for it was their fear of the Ebola virus spreading into this heavily locked-in country. Fears aside, some days before the scheduled event the government lifted the travel ban and let foreign runners to join local runners in torturing themselves by running over 42 kilometers. In 2016 there was another virus, the Zika, but the North Korean leaders did not suspend the foreign participation. Instead for weeks before the marathon the world news were full of stories about the North Korean military, including nuclear, capacities. They tried new rockets, they threatened their enemies, and they have imprisoned an American citizen for taking a poster down where he was not allowed. Wait, for spying, that must have been the official North Koreans’ line. When I mentioned to friends or family my upcoming trip, there were two types of reactions. First was this: watch out for insecurities and be careful not to do anything stupid. For after all, the dictatorships are usually the safest locations with next to non-existent petty crime. Strange, that the only way to eradicate petty theft is to introduce a totalitarian system. Or, is petty crime a side effect of human liberty? In either case, there is no petty crime in North Korea; that I am sure of.
The second type of reactions was a full reservation: what on earth are you doing? Where are you going? You are putting yourself in a dangerous situation. As if I was walking into a dragon’s mouth voluntarily. Yes, I was walking into something, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t a dragon.
The paperology for entering North Korea was atypical. The travel agency centrally coordinated the application for the visa and the purchase of the airline tickets. This way the most troublesome elements on the itinerary were removed from the picture. Further on, since China allows for a non-visa entry up to 72 hours in Beijing, I did not need to apply for the Chinese visa either. In fact all I had to do was to get a ticket to Beijing and find a place there to spend a night or two.
Aren’t distractions great? Ahead of a big race anything that takes my focus off the run is useful. To distress myself, to let time pass. I got my visa by email from Koryo about a week before my flight to Beijing. I also needed an onwards ticket to Pyongyang (to prove to the Chinese I would not be staying in their country longer than 72 hours), which I got on the same day. All went smoothly thus far, and I boarded the plane to Beijing.
In Beijing I did two things. First, I went out for a run in the Chaoyang Park. It felt great to run here in China. I liked the way the park was organized. There were a few walking/running paths marked very well. Also, there was tartan on the paths, which made for a nicer run. Second, I attended the pre-departure briefing at the Koryo headquarters, where the participants were informed about what not to do while in North Korea. The following morning we were boarding a plane to Pyongyang.
On Sunday, 10 April 2016 I run the marathon in Pyongyang, the capital city of the most locked-in country on Earth. My final gun time was 3:59:27, while my sports watch measured net time at 3:55:47. Hurray, I made it! I broke the 4 hours mark during a marathon!
It was my third marathon overall, the first in Asia and the first under four hours. The four hours was a must. It had to happen. I fixed myself to do it, and it was also an official “must do”. For some unknown weird reason, the cut-off time of the Pyongyang Marathon was set at 4 hours. The finish line was in the world’s largest stadium (May Day Stadium) in front of some 70,000-80,000 people. Anyone who failed to enter the stadium by the 4th hour would not be able to enter the stadium for the final 200 meters. Before that, there was a 10 kilometers loop that the marathoners had to run four times and the half marathoners twice. In theory, one could feel like an Olympian finishing a race supported by tens of thousands of people. Yet, it had a different feel to me.
Only the marathon race finished at the big stadium. The half marathoners finished just outside of it, and the 10km racers did not complete the loop. The 4 hour limit caused concern. Some marathoners felt kind of cheated, for others it was an extra push of motivation. I hoped this would not turn against me.
Putting three races together meant that on the first loop there was a big crowd of people. Almost all runners were foreigners. Just a handful of North Korean professionals joined the marathon race. There were also non-North Korean professionals and only non-North Korean amateurs. In fact, it seems that running for the pleasure of it is quite an alien idea for the locals. In Pyongyang jogging has not been invented yet. Unlike fly-fishing, which was invented last year, as we were informed by our lovely guides.
I crossed the 10km mark in 52 minutes, on schedule. On the second loop the crowd got thinner as all the runners wearing black numbers finished their race. Here, some of the blue number holders (half marathoners) started to speed up, especially towards the end of the loop. The marathoners’ font color was red. Every 5km there was a water station, except for the kilometer 40, which I found annoying. The sun was high up, the sky was cloudless, official 19 Centigrades felt much warmer – I kept on taking a full bottle of water every 5k. Luckily every loop included two tunnels, where the temperature dropped instantly. Interesting, how my legs sped up momentarily at those short distances.
The third and the forth loops were empty. There were only some 600 marathon-runners, all spread around. Some of the faster runners would overtake me on my third lap. Here I was running mostly alone. At first I would connect with two runners who were pacing at a similar pace to mine. One of them wore a green shirt; the other one was wearing a t-shirt with a Croat flag. At times I would lose them, then I would catch up, or they would catch up on me. Later on (25th km), I would join two British guys, who were jogging from the begging to the finish line together.
Towards the end of the third loop, I have slowed my pace somewhat. Still, I remember to have run the 10k distance between the 28th and 38th kilometers in a round 60 minutes. It was comforting to know that this late in a race I was still not slowing down too substantially. Now I knew I had a really good shot at running under 4 hours. Some kilometers before I passed Mr. Tadeusz Szewczak, a fellow Pole, who at the age of 62 has completed his 88th marathon on the day. Respect, Sir! Somewhere close to the 40th kilometer I passed the two British guys, who were now walking the rest of the distance.
The idea of finishing at the stadium filled with 70k people was a mystery to me. I am no professional athlete. I cared more about breaking the 4 hours mark than the actual finish at the stadium. Just before the stadium I passed yet another runner. Then, strangely, it was nice to enter the stadium through a dark pathway. An end to a long journey was nearing on me. I was practically finishing on my own. The crowd was there, not really paying much attention to the yet another slow guy finishing here. I imagine they were contemplating the winners, who were to be awarded soon. By the finish line there was a box filled with foreign supporters – all the people were here who had finished before me their 10k, half marathon or a marathon race. They were by far the most colorful and emotional and loudest group at the stadium. I raised my hands as a true winner. I won with myself. I realized the dream of breaking 4 hours in a marathon. I thought “now I need to start thinking more seriously about breaking the 3 hours 30 minutes.”
From the organizational point of view, this competition was poorly arranged. The chips did not serve the purpose of measuring time… Well, the reason for having them was to make sure marathoners run four loops, not fewer. A slow-pace marathoner could run a loop less and end up winning the whole thing, right? Every five kilometers there was a water station and a line of officials looking up your number on their list: this guy is checked! Meaning: this guy is here, is not lost, is not a wandering individual of any sort, we have it under control. Next!
It was a strange and unique race, as they all are. However, even more bizarre was the country we were in. With all have rules of what can and what cannot be done; yet it became soon very clear to us all how surreal the place was. During the marathon you can take pictures, but not of the monuments of the leaders. Your t-shirt cannot be a commercial of a company, only small national flags are allowed. You cannot roll a camera while running. You cannot bring any big camera with you, while running. Only small cameras are allowed on phones or GoPros. You are not allowed to leave the course – except for the toilets. You are allowed to greet the people (thank you!). If you stop during a race, wait until you are picked up. It is the responsibility of the tour guides to pick us all up. You can tell they were stressed. Someone will wait for you at the 10k finish line! Someone will wait for you at the half marathon finish line! And of course, there will be someone waiting for you at the marathon finish line at the stadium. For those who did not finish the marathon under four hours, someone would wait for them just outside of the stadium. Control, control, control. This country is all about control. My focus was on the race. I did not take a phone or a camera for the race. I wore a t-shirt provided by the tour company I came with. I came here to run.
There were the water stations every five km, except for the 40th kilometer, when the sun was operating well and I needed more water. On two occasions there were also bananas offered. At the finish line there was only water, a towel and no medal for participation. Disappointing as it was, there were only medals for the winners. At least this is what I thought at the time. It turned out that other companies had medals for their runners. I ordered one online after returning home. It felt surreal to receive my Pyongyang medal from the United States…
The locals, who showed up in big numbers, supported the runners. There was a big crowd at the stadium, but also some people came out to the streets. They smiled a lot, some of them were clapping, the youngest were high-fiving as many runners as they could. Some were shouting “hello”, “where are you from”, maybe the same in Korean, but most were silent. Once or twice I heard tunes of an official North Korean music, which might have been useful to some. Not to me, so I shut it out from my attention as much as possible.
The problem was that the support was biggest on the first loop. Later on as there were fewer people running there were fewer people supporting. But those who were still on course were in a much greater need of a support, if you asked me. When you are running on your own, there are no other fellow runners in sight, when you are tired and exhausted and all you can do is to carry on, any support is crucial. When you are at 40th kilometer and you discover there is no water waiting for you, and instead there is only a hot sun shining above, all you want is to sprint down to the finish line – or stop. Maybe this is me who am trying to seek explanations why I did not run faster. A friend concluded I was going soft on myself; I should have been faster. And it was he ahead of the run saying that he was here for the experience, not the time. Exactly.
The finish line was at the amazing First May Stadium filled with 70 or 80 thousand people. The largest stadium in the world was 50% full. But it was 70 or 80k gray dolls reacting identically, very calmly, to what was going on at the stadium. They were not a big and colorful crowd you can see elsewhere in the world. They were having a good time, for sure, or were they there only for us to see? I can’t imagine anywhere in the world such a big crowd would show up for to watch the finish of a marathon race. Not even at the Olympics. Only in North Korea. So, where they real supporters who came out of pure interest, or they were kindly “asked” to come on the day?
Still, it was one of a kind experience. I have never finished running a race at a stadium this big, and I do not know if I am ever going to finish a race in a stadium so crowded in the future. I found it interesting that for the first time for me, it was not the faceless and nameless crowd that mattered, but the people’s faces of fellow runners who finished earlier and now supported us latecomers, they mattered a lot. I was watching them; they were watching me. I cared for them as I recognized a few familiar faces; they supported me because they knew who I was.
The stadium was not shut exactly after four hours. The organisers let in a few more people, who run over four hours, but who got to finish still at the stadium. They were finishing at the stadium, but not on the main track, where the podium to decorate the winners was being set up. Those last entering the stadium runners would finish at a parallel track. There would be still others, who were denied to enter the stadium.
Was I slow? I finished 123rd out of 134 men whose time was measured, so I was one of the last people on the stadium. There were many more of us who started the marathon race, so a good bunch of people never made it to the stadium. And still, I cannot consider myself slow here. I improved on my Personal Best, I broke the 4 hour time limit. Since my rivalry is with myself, this has to be considered a very good performance, despite the objective reality. A cynical friend and a fellow runner commented that if she faced a 4 hour cut off time, she would have broke the 4 hours benchmark, too. Instead, her spring 2016 marathon was closer to 4 hours 10 minutes. It might be true, but all it is a hypothetical truth.
Clearly I was not there to see the winners of the marathon race. And I was told it was very controversial. Apparently the first person to enter the stadium was an African athlete who was led by a car. The car entered the stadium and turned left. The African guy followed the car. Apparently the race referee did not signal properly to the African the way he should turn once in the stadium (or the African athlete did not notice the referee). Either way, some fifty meters behind there was a North Korean athlete, who turned correctly, to the right. He was instructed to do so by the same referee. This is when the African realised his mistake and turned back. He started to catch up on the local runner, but by now he was too much behind. The local runner won the race, but as one observer remarked, he clearly did not deserve a “fair play” award. Yet in this surreal place it came for us to run, another pertinent question comes to mind: was he or was the African runner not mislead by the organisers on purpose? At least this is what he must have thought when he sat on the field of the stadium for a few minutes, what looked like a protest since some referees were clearly approaching him and asking him to step aside.
North Korea is a strange place. Sometimes I had an impression I was time traveling to 1950s Soviet Union. Sometimes the impression I had was that I was in a parallel reality to my own world: it was a reality too distant to be on the same planet; yet it had some features similar to my reality. And sometimes the impression was that this reality is just so abstract – maybe we were on the set of the Truman Show? – that I could no more tell the difference between what was real and what was staged. All the people we have met – were they all for show? Why were we locked in on an island and prevented from leaving it on our own? Were the tall apartment buildings inhabited (as we were told) if there were no lights on in the evenings? Why in the scientific library we were taken to, there were only foreign visitors, a few people dressed in military cloths, and some kids playing computer games, but there were no scientists at sight? Do the locals believe in what they say? Take this: they (the North Koreans who speak English and we can talk to) all wore pins with portraits of former Supreme Leaders, Kim Ir Sen and Kim Jong Il. Asked where they got the pins, they said they were given them as teenagers. We could not get a pin like that. They could not give us their pin or, worse, sell it to us. Trying to comprehend the importance of the pin I asked if this was like a Christian cross on the neck of many Christians. The pin is a personal belonging of a great symbolism and importance to the owner. No Christian is going to give away their neck-tied cross. No North Korean is going to give away their leaders’ pin. Or take another case: there are fake planes parked at the airport. How do we know they were fake? They were wooden and people were sitting on some of the planes with hammers… So, why bother? Is it for the foreign satellites to notice more machines parked on Pyongyang airstrip? Really? The airport has three terminals and regular flights to three Chinese cities and Vladivostok in Russia. Why every day a few times we keep on meeting yet another large group of people training a dance for an upcoming parade? Some are training for 1 May celebrations, others for the Party Congress, while others for the Kim Ir Sen’s birthday, etc. Really, so many people want to (or do they have to?) perform like this? It reminds me of the Hunger Games movies, but the main difference is that the Capital privilege is not the pink. The Capitol’s life is as grey, just a little bit differently. The difference is in a little bit more full stomach. Still, all the North Koreans we meet or even see are disproportionally small. The undernourishment must have become generational by now.
We are not allowed… what exactly? In fact we are allowed to watch emotionless. Sometimes it is difficult to keep your face still when you hear that the fly-fishing was just invented in North Korea recently. Yes, inventions can take place here even years after someone else invented the same thing elsewhere, because no one here has ever heard about fly-fishing before. Or when we hear that the monuments are the biggest, the metro the deepest and the stadium can host the largest crowd in the world. Nothing wins as the most beautiful; no one wins as the most gifted or the brightest. Instead there are international art festivals with participants from all around the world, from Zimbabwe and Belarus… Right. I went to Senegal the other year where I heard about North Korean builders who just finished the construction of one of the most-monstrous monuments on the African soil. Apparently the North Korean workers refused to return home and preferred to stay in Africa.
The military people are everywhere. There are many buildings under construction or renovation. We cannot take photos of the military or of anything that is ‘under construction’. Somehow I fear the entire country and its version of a utopian system is still, and forever will be, under construction. Or it might be just my capitalistic materialism speaking…
The personal cult is an amazing thing to see it first hand. It is easy to celebrate former leaders, as it happens in many places around the world. It is human nature to remember only (good or bad) partially of what previous leaders accomplish. Even democracies whiten Churchills and Kennedies of the past; while Ataturk, Mao, Eva Peron and Napoleon are national symbols beyond criticism. In North Korea the personal cult is alive and kicking. Every place the Supreme Leader (or his Father or Grandfather) visits is remembered. The years are counted from the birth year of the first Supreme Leader. In the year 2016 of our counting it was the year 105 by the North Korean account. Every chair a Supreme Leader sat up is marked. Every keyboard he used. After the marathon we continued to sight-see Pyongyang. We were tired and some of us experienced difficulties walking. Commands were coming our way nevertheless: “now take pictures”, or not, and never of the military staff, military buildings or the ‘under construction’ sites. Now we eat. Now we sleep. Now we visit a great park. Now we bow in front of the face of God. God? No, there is no God in this country. Well, in a way there is, and is present in three persons. God’s name is Kim and the three persons are the Grandfather, the Father and the Grandson. Now is the era of the Grandson and the Grandson Kim did not decide quite yet if he wants his own monuments erected next to the monuments of the other two Kims. The Grandfather Kim liked monuments. The Father Kim did not want them, but the people wanted to have monuments of him, so new monuments were erected after the Father died. En passant of putting one new monument of Kim Jong Il next to the previous pieces of art, the Kim Ir Sen monument we visited got a lifting: now a smile appears on his face where previously was a mere grimace. This is how the Kims are getting closer to their people. Kim III is a young Supreme Leader. He still has time to decide if he wants his monuments to be built up during his lifetime or later.
The Hunger Games, The Truman Show, terrifying reality of a totalitarian communist state, three scoops of rice a day for free, education for free, the healthcare as well. In the Pyongyang there is a daily newspaper hanging in the middle of each station. On the news information about You-Know-Who, who visited here and there, who opened this and that, who was present for his people. For the Americans among us this looks like gossip papers back home informing their readers about Hollywood celebrities daily routine: divorces, flirting, cheating, new babies, nudity on a beach, new haircut… the Supreme Guy has the same haircut all the time. You can order it in the hotel hairdresser. For me this is no celebrity gossip column. For me this is the Soviet-era Poland and its government paper, The Voice of the People (Trybuna Ludu) or the Soviet Union’s Stalinist era with their Pravda daily. This way or the other, the North Korea’s paper is hanging in the middle of each metro stop for the citizens to read the news. In a strange way, this way of presenting the news protects the average citizen. After all, there is a risk of imprisonment for a “wrong” folding of a paper: no picture of a Supreme Leader can be folded for this would be disrespectful.
Nobody knows where the Supreme Leader, sorry, You-Know-Who lives. “I do not want to know”, adds our guide, who seems offended by my very question. I am shocked she is shocked. Every other nation is proud of where their leaders are living: the White House, the Kremlin, Downing Street 10, the Forbidden Palace, all the other palaces and castles around the world, etc. Here, in North Korea, “it is better for you I do not want to know” where the Supreme Leader lives, the guide adds before I can regroup and ask a follow up question “WHY?”
There are Americans among us. There are no Japanese among us. The result is we do not hear about the American imperialism, but we do hear about the Japanese imperialism. The relations between Japan and its Eastern Asian neighbours are tense and dense with historical events. But it is highly hypocritical not to mention the American evil at all (since it was US who has attacked North Korea in 1950s) when there are so many anti-American posters in so many places we are taken to visit.
On the bus, now, we are passing by another monument. It must be the tallest in its category. Driving in Pyongyang is easy. There are no traffic jams. There are very few cars, and the roads are wide. Most Koreans are dressed the same way, wearing greyish and brownish outfits. Some are biking or walk by their bikes filled with groceries. In (the deepest in the world) metro some are turning their eyes away trying not to see us, foreigners. Others are frightened and run away. Only a three-years-old boy is not afraid and plays with one of the girls. A friend from Hong Kong noticed a Kalashnikov transported on the metro. Except for… it was a wooden fake gun.
The North Koreans we have contact with are no highly intelligent spies. When we meet a very intelligent lady, who is a guide in one of the places we visit, one can feel how hostile she is towards us. Or, is it my male reading of a strong woman, who was not broken, but has to live with a difficult to grasp compromise she once had to make? Or maybe, is it us who are hostile – or, cynical – to whatever she has to tell us; all we get in return is a reaction to our own behaviour?
We live in the Yanggakdo Hotel on the Yanggak Island on the river Taedong, and this island is the only area we can stroll freely. The hotel is the only building on the island. The world outside of the island is impossible to visit without the official guides. The guides always travel in teams of two, one woman and one man. One of them is always in the front of the escorted group, while another is in the back. The Lady has a better English, hence she is the lead guide of our tour. De facto we are in a luxury prison. The small island is connected with the shores by bridges, but the bridges are sealed off. You can’t go out in the evening for a walk around town on your own. Forget about jogging outside of the island on your own – if you want to run, you can only run around the hotel.
It is all thought through. In order not to focus on “how to get out of here at night” there are plenty of alternative options to pass time in the evenings. They all are in the underground of the hotel: there is a casino, table tennis, massages, billiard, bowling, karaoke and other ways to kill time. You can pay in dollars, euros or Chinese money. Local currency is not for the foreigners to use. Staying in your hotel room is not a viable option: there is no Internet, phones are nor working, books were not allowed into the country. On the North Korean TV a presenter in her orgiastic voice talks about meetings of You-Know-Who God-Knows-Where. The religious books (like the Bible) are not allowed in North Korea. For bringing them to North Korea you can get a long-time prison time? Oh well.
The elevators do not stop on the 5th floor of the hotel. You can stop at 4th or 6th floor, but not on the 5th floor. Surely this is a source of speculation: what is going on the infamous Floor Five of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang? Are the spies tuning in and listen to the private conversations of guests? How many interpreters do they need to comprehend so many people speaking so many various languages? I am staying in a hotel room with a friend with whom we speak Polish to each other. Or, maybe all this speculation is nothing more than this, pure speculation. Maybe the infamous Floor Five of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang hosts a laundry?
The speculation went global a few weeks earlier when an American student tried to take down a propaganda poster from the 5th floor. How did he get there? Stairs. Why did he try to take down a poster? Who knows, maybe because he was an idiot? Maybe it was a college prank? In any case, the guy was caught on camera and imprisoned for 15 years in a North Korean prison. A few floors below the 5th floor there is a souvenir bookshop in the hotel. Any guest can purchase any of the propaganda posters on sale there.
Emotionally, we became attached to our guides. I can’t imagine they were spies. At best, they were informers. Or, maybe they were very good actors? They were seemingly moved when we were leaving at the airport. Their task is impossible: to defend their views and the good name of their country in the eyes of foreigners, who were fed with hostile information.
How your point of view depends on where you are. On the plane back to China all of us, a collective of a few hundreds of people have the same impression: we are coming back to the free world. Maybe not a fully free world, just a little bit freer. Or maybe, it was not a return to the free world at all. Maybe it was a time travel, and we all welcomed a return home, to our times, from a weird parallel reality? In China there is the Internet, even if tons of websites are blocked. At least the Chinese in Beijing are contemporary to us all: driven by the same ambitions, family, work, not scared of demons, nor facing death penalty for offending the national leader.
It is as the tour guides (the non-Korean tour guides) told us: the crowd coming to North Korea is a particular crowd of curious people looking for answers (obviously they told this to please us, too). Once the crowd enters the North Korea, spends here a few days, there are more open questions pending answers without any decisive answers given. A country ruled by fear, but full of smiling people who do not understand us. A country where the time flies with the same speed, yet somehow there is a different feeling to it. A country where the physically smaller people keep on reinventing the wheel. I wonder if this is what the Kremlinology science was all about. Is there something like Kimology where people understand what is going on in North Korea?
The brainwashed version of the truth is on the offer; we hardly buy it. Yet the cynical reaction is not the only reaction among the foreigners who came to Pyongyang. We are auto-censoring ourselves! We control ourselves and one another so that no one makes a stupid mistake he or she or all of us would have to pay for. Us, the foreigners, we will make it out. There are embassies, diplomats, people who will stand up in our defence. Even this US student sentenced for 15 years will go out free rather sooner than later – I am sure he will be released in a good moment, when the price for his freedom is negotiated between the Pyongyang and Washington governments. But if for our mistake our guides were to pay, who would defend them? Is it worth it to risk so much for an extra photograph? It does not mean we are not taking pictures of the military objects or soldiers or of the buildings under construction – of course we take pictures of that sort. But we take fewer pictures. It means we remind one another those absurd rules. When we do it, we do it cynically, yes, but each time it is also a warning. We are here only for a couple of days. At the end of the trip we just can’t wait for the plane to take off to the freer world. Not, not freer, to the current world. To China.