In 2015, I found myself on Tinder in Shanghai, swiping through guys I already knew, guys I had previously dated and the occasional pilot visiting town for "one night only". Expat dating in Shanghai is a minefield – a transient scene with a limited pool of potential matches and much debauchery, as no one really plans to stay in the city forever.
I was pleasantly surprised when I matched with Robert*, a fellow expat from the UK who had just moved to Shanghai. After chatting for a while, we arranged to meet up at a cocktail bar. We found that we had a lot in common, the most important being that we both wanted to compete in the upcoming Pyongyang Half Marathon. I decided that it would be better to go with somebody else, not only for the Instagram photos, but also because it would work out a lot cheaper.
So, after our first date, we booked a three-day tour of North Korea and entry to the Pyongyang Half Marathon. In for a penny, in for a pound – we were going on a North Korean holi-date.
On departure day I was running late for the Air Koryo flight, and frantically messaged Robert, who told me that the gate was closed and he was leaving without me. When I arrived to see that he hadn't even checked in yet, I was furious. The realization that I was going to the most inaccessible country on earth with a stranger and no access to the internet or my go-to group chat, where I could tear into him mercilessly, suddenly hit me. Luckily, my initial concerns were unfounded as he was a complete gentleman and fantastic travel buddy.
The stewardesses on our flight were not my first contact with North Koreans. While studying in Shanghai, I'd lived in a building with North Korean students on the same scholarship program as me. They could often be seen sporting their Kim Jong-il badges and cooking food in the shared kitchen, extolling the virtues of a secret ingredient from their homeland – North Korean MSG.
When I decided to visit North Korea, my memory of these students humanized the common preconception built from disturbing rhetoric surrounding North Korea in the West. I was aware that everyday North Koreans do not have a say in politics, and that seeing foreign tourists could be their only window out of the isolated country. Of course, this was not my reason for going. I was also intrigued by this unfamiliar nation on the doorstep of China.
Our North Korea Tinder date careered from the highs of running into a national stadium filled with synchronized clapping spectators and the lows of contracting food poisoning and having to disguise debilitating trips to the bathroom from a potential love match. This was all while having the eerie feeling that we were always being watched by our North Korean minders, inexplicable trailing camera man and suspected hidden cameras in our room, which were not the biggest turn on in this case.
One of our local guides discovered that I was mixed race and told me that they didn’t believe different ethnicities should procreate, which was quickly backtracked on with a mumble that I must be very resistant to viral diseases. It was impossible to be offended; North Korea is a homogenous society, and they have no real understanding of the outside world.
In the evenings, our tour group was returned to the hotel and not permitted to leave until the next day. One of the only activities available to us was to hit the bar. There was an intoxicating mix of hedonism and bravado as we downed beers and dissected every aspect of the "socialist paradise" we had been presented with that day.
I was shocked, and realized my naivety, when I saw news reports of American college student, Otto Warmbier, being arrested in Pyongyang less than a year after our visit for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. Warmbier was repatriated to the US in a comatose state 17 months after his arrest, but passed away six days later. Reportedly drunk when he stole the poster, it made me realize what an unnecessary risk we took and how it could have happened on our trip.
Last year, the fallout between the US administration and North Korean leadership reached fever pitch, and people around the world feared the consequences of two men comparing rocket sizes like prepubescent boys. This month, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made a surprise visit to Beijing, in what some analysts perceived as a move to provoke President Trump by flaunting strong bilateral relations with China in the midst of the ongoing US-China trade war. North Korea is on a knife edge, and many in the country are completely clueless about how close their realities could be from coming crashing down. It has been reported that next month Vietnam might play host to a second Trump-Kim summit – and who could possibly predict what might transpire between the two unpredictable leaders then?
Very little accurate information about day-to-day living conditions in the country exists, and I'm under no illusion that what we were shown had any real bearing on reality. At one point during the half marathon, I saw a man in an official-looking fluorescent jacket say something to a lackluster local crowd lining the street, before they burst into enthusiastic applause and cheers.
Our North Korea Tinder date was punctuated with propaganda photographs of Kim Jong-un looking at things, musty 1970s hotel rooms and lists of questions we wanted to google. Looking back, perhaps our choice of date spots was the death knell for romance – that, or the fact people kept assuming we were siblings. Regardless, Robert and I remain close friends.
*Name has been changed.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.