‘North korea is one of the nicest places I’ve vis­ited’

South Wales Echo - - NEWS - MAR­CUS HUGHES Re­porter mar­cus.hughes@waleson­line.co.uk

IT IS a global pariah state known for its se­cre­tive, to­tal­i­tar­ian regime and nu­clear mis­siles – but one Cardiff man says North Korea is “one of the nicest coun­tries I have ever been to”.

The Asian state en­forces strict lim­its on the num­ber of vis­i­tors it al­lows into the coun­try and re­quires them to be con­stantly mon­i­tored by state­sanc­tioned guides.

In re­cent months, the UK For­eign Of­fice has ad­vised against all but essen­tial travel to North Korea due to in­creas­ing ten­sions be­tween Py­ongyang and Wash­ing­ton.

But amid mis­sile tests, mil­i­tary ex­er­cises and bru­tal po­lit­i­cal ex­changes, one South Wales man has been on a trip to the Her­mit King­dom and says he had a lovely time.

On Septem­ber 12, Dean Matthews, of Llan­rum­ney, Cardiff, flew from China to Py­ongyang to take the prac­ti­cal exam needed to be­come a taek­wondo mas­ter af­ter 35 years de­voted to the sport.

The 45-year-old took his 7th dan black belt grad­ing at the Taek­wondo Palace in Py­ongyang but said he found time to en­joy the sights.

“I was a bit wor­ried go­ing over there,” Dean said. “We knew what was go­ing on with the UN meet­ings and Mr Trump say­ing he was go­ing to de­stroy North Korea, but I feel it was one of the nicest coun­tries I have ever been to.”

Taek­wondo is Korea’s na­tional sport, mean­ing Dean and his fel­low com­peti­tors got a very warm wel­come.

“Af­ter the com­pe­ti­tion fin­ished we were in­vited to the Kum­su­san Palace of the Sun, which is the rest­ing place of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il,” he said.

“There are glass coffins with the for­mer lead­ers inside, so the se­cu­rity pres­ence is huge. You had to go in, bow and pay your re­spects.”

On Fri­day, Septem­ber 15, the party were awo­ken from their beds at the Sosan Ho­tel in Py­ongyang by an un­ex­pected sound.

“We were wo­ken up by the mis­sile launch which we could hear from the ho­tel,” he said.

“I put the TV on and it flashed up say­ing the mis­sile was fly­ing to­wards Ja­pan, so I was a lit­tle bit con­cerned.”

Dean said he was re­as­sured by em­bassy of­fi­cials who told them they would be treated as a pri­or­ity if they needed to leave the coun­try.

He added: “There’s posters of mis­siles in the streets and in the ho­tel, so they seem to be quite proud of them. But I couldn’t say at any time that I felt in any danger.”

Dean is the head coach of the Welsh ITF taek­wondo team and trav­elled with the squad ini­tially for the World Cham­pi­onships as well as his grad­ing.

Hav­ing achieved his 7th dan black belt on the trip, Dean has of­fi­cially reached the rank of mas­ter.

“It feels fan­tas­tic and I’m very pleased,” Mr Matthews said. “When I came back my fam­ily had some con­grat­u­la­tions bal­loons ready and at my first les­son back with my stu­dents I’m more than sure they will be con­grat­u­lat­ing me.”

He added: “I re­ally enjoyed it and I’m glad I went. I wouldn’t hes­i­tate go­ing back in the fu­ture, I just hope the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion calms down.”

Dean Matthews out­side the Taek­wondo Palace in Py­ongyang with his 7th dan masters cer­tifi­cate

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