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Partytown Pyongyang? Global tour comes to NKorea
NKorea Partytown Py 5955672
Maximillion Cooper, center, the 36-year-old British entrepreneur who created the 3,000-mile car rally entitled the Gumball 3000, a raucous gang of skateboarders, dot-com moguls, fashion designers, actors, Middle Eastern sheikhs and a Playboy Playmate, waves a North Korean flag during the Mass Games in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008. Cooper, the leader of the group of Gumball 3000 participants, consisting of a glitzy road rally cum marathon VIP party, is visiting the world's most isolate country for a viewingof it's mass games. - photo by Associated Press
    PYONGYANG, North Korea — Call it skateboard diplomacy.
    For 16 hours this week, the reclusive North Koreans opened their doors to a raucous gang of skateboarders, dot-com moguls, actors, fashion designers, Middle Eastern sheiks and a Playboy Playmate, and let them party.
    The globe-trotting crew from Gumball 3000, a glitzy road rally cum marathon VIP party, sang karaoke, skateboarded and generally enjoyed themselves, but not too much; one rallygoer worried about getting tossed into a North Korean jail.
    The founder of the 3,000-mile rally that marked its 10th anniversary this year said the North’s decision to allow them in was a sign that the authoritarian country was loosening up.
    ‘‘Even though it’s pop culture thrown straight in there, it definitely shows a relaxed approach by the North Korean government,’’ 36-year-old British entrepreneur Maximillion Cooper said.
    The 8-day tour began in San Francisco and finishes Saturday in Beijing. Pyongyang, however, is far from the typical stop on the global party scene. The North Korea visit ending Thursday was a dramatic study in contrasts.
    Entrants paid up to $112,000 per car to enter the rally, which includes five-star accommodations and lavish parties at every stop. North Koreans’ average monthly salary is about $2.
    Rallygoers are driving some of the world’s most expensive supercars, from Lamborghinis to Ferraris. In North Korea, cars are only for the elite few; the more fortunate ride bikes but most people simply walk.
    The group was decked out with the latest smartphones and laptops with wireless data connections allowing them to always be online, even blogging while driving.
    After flying into Pyongyang, they had to turn in all their gadgets. The devices are largely banned in North Korea, where most citizens are kept in a bubble of isolation from the outside world.
    ‘‘We were living in real-time on the Web and then we get to North Korea and we’re in the dark,’’ said Trevor Traina, 40, an Internet entrepreneur and founder of DriverSide, a Web site for car owners.
    While Gumball is a race, the event’s focus tends to be on the rolling party of celebrity drivers.
    The rally has drawn criticism as some drivers have been involved in accidents or arrested for speeding in recent years. Last year, two people died following an accident with a Porsche 911 in Macedonia, and the rest of the rally was canceled.
    The trip to North Korea was a couple of years in the making, said Cooper, the rally founder.
    The country’s ambassador to Britain, whom Cooper had gotten to know, watched the London start of the 2006 rally, and surprised Cooper with a proposal to bring the event to North Korea, Cooper said.
    Cooper visited Pyongyang and was briefly introduced to leader Kim Jong Il before attending a meeting of top officials who gave him permission to hold the event — even allowing cars to be driven across the country to the heavily fortified border with South Korea.
    But in Seoul, Cooper said, officials were hesitant to back the plan.
    ‘‘Through this, we really open doors and have these unique opportunities and that kind of scares politicians’’ used to going through typical official channels, Cooper said.
    Efforts shifted to trying to stage a rock concert in Pyongyang, and Cooper said possible artists included Eric Clapton or Roger Waters. But he said no corporate sponsor was found willing to pay the high production cost to bring such acts to the North.
    It would have been the highest-profile performance in Pyongyang since the New York Philharmonic’s historic concert in February.
    In the end, the rally ended up making the short stop in Pyongyang without the cars to watch the North Koreans’ ‘‘mass games’’ propaganda spectacle featuring 100,000 people performing synchronized gymnastics and acrobatics.
    After the performance, the group had a banquet at the Koryo Hotel that a guide boasted was ‘‘one of the most luxurious hotels in our country.’’ Toasts were raised to the health of Kim Jong Il, and to Cooper.
    Tattooed rally entrants wearing designer T-shirts and jeans mixed alongside North Korea’s vice culture minister clad in a dark suit.
    The strictly controlled North is one place where it is wise not to step out of line.
    ‘‘It would just suck to wind up in a situation you don’t want to be in a place like that,’’ said Bam Margera, 28, a skateboarder and ‘‘Jackass’’ co-creator. ‘‘The last place I would want to be is in a North Korean police station trying to explain myself.’’
    Some of those in the group did sneak out in the early morning from the hotel for a brief skateboarding session, drawing bewilderment and stares from North Koreans.
    The closest thing to hijinks came Wednesday night in the hotel’s karaoke bar, where English song selections included classics such as ‘‘My Way’’ and ‘‘Country Road.’’
    A North Korean waitress wearing a high-waisted traditional Korean ‘‘hanbok’’ dress refused to get on a skateboard brought to the bar.
    But one of the North Korean guides — the government minders who shadow all visitors in the North where no independent travel is allowed — was willing to hop on and coasted for a few yards before tumbling to the ground.
    Was it one small step for peace and reconciliation?
    ‘‘The world leaders should rethink their strategies — maybe they should spend a night in the karaoke bar,’’ said Amro Kayal, 44, a real estate developer from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

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