North Korea gives green light to 'wacky races for super rich'
By Andrew Murray-Watson
It is one of the most secretive regimes in the world, part of George Bush's "axis of evil" and is believed to be close to building a nuclear arsenal. Next year, however, North Korea will open its borders to an eclectic mix of models, showbusiness personalities and captains of industry taking part in the real-life version of Hollywood's Cannonball Run.
The Gumball Rally, a 3,000-mile high-speed dash by more than 100 millionaires driving an assortment of Porsches, Ferraris and Aston Martins, has gained unprecedented permission to travel through the Communist country.
Next year's rally will enter North Korea from China before travelling to its capital Pyongyang and then proceed through the demilitarised zone into South Korea. The route is all the more remarkable because North and South Korea are still technically at war, though a ceasefire agreement was signed in 1953.
The announcement, made yesterday by Maximillian Cooper, the owner of the Gumball Rally, and Ri Yong Ho, the North Korean ambassador to Britain, comes days after the dictatorship said that it had removed fuel rods from a nuclear reactor - a key part of the atomic weapon-making process.
Mr Cooper, a former racing driver, returned from Pyongyang last month with written confirmation of the agreement dated March 18, 2005. The "letter of guarantee" seen by The Telegraph reads: "The government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, expressing the expectations that the proposal made by the UK Gumball 3000 to organise in May 2006 long-distance car race crossing the northern and southern parts of the Korean peninsula will contribute to ensuring peace and security on the Korean peninsula, hereby guarantees to give exceptional permission to pass through Panmunjom."
According to Mr Cooper, the agreement has dumbfounded the South Korean government: "I walked into the South Korean parliament with this document and they looked at the piece of paper like it's a billion-dollar bank note." Mr Cooper, who is one of the few Westerners to have met the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, said that American companies, such as Coca Cola and McDonald's, would be allowed to advertise on the route of the rally. He added: "We will have 120 cars, a huge media focus, and they are allowing us to film it and take cameras with us."
Well-known faces on this year's rally, described as a "wacky races for the super rich", include the models Caprice and Jodie Kidd, and Darryl Hannah, the actress, who is driving a pink Range Rover.
The 2005 race, launched last night in London by Jenson Button, the Formula 1 driver, will take in Belgium, Vienna, Budapest, Sicily, Rome and Florence before ending in Monaco on Friday to coincide with the Grand Prix.
The Foreign Office yesterday declined to comment.