PYONGYANG • A few hundred foreigners lined up yesterday in Kim Il Sung stadium for the Pyongyang Marathon, less than last year's contingent, with Western tourism to North Korea battered by nuclear tensions and a US travel ban.
A packed crowd in the 47,000-capacity arena cheered and clapped before the runners streamed out of the stadium beneath portraits of the North's founder and his son and successor, Kim Jong Il.
The event - part of the celebrations for the anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth in 1912 - is normally the annual peak for Western tourism to the isolated country, offering visitors the chance to run or jog through the streets of Pyongyang.
But fears of conflict reached fresh heights last year as the North made rapid progress in its nuclear and missile ambitions under leader Kim Jong Un, who carried out its most powerful atomic test to date and launched rockets bringing the continental United States into range.
Several new sets of UN Security Council sanctions were imposed. In September, Washington effectively banned US citizens from visiting after the death of tourist Otto Warmbier, and several other countries stepped up their travel warnings.
A total of 429 foreign amateurs entered the marathon this year, compared with over 1,000 last year.
"The tourism industry in general has fallen substantially since the middle of last year," said Mr Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, the market leader.
North Korean twin sisters Kim Hye Gyong and Kim Hye Song took first and second places in the women's race, with the younger of the 25-year-olds crossing the line less than a metre ahead.
Local runners also filled the first three places in the men's race, with the first invited elite competitor, a Moroccan, trailing in fourth and observers suggesting the cold conditions - in the single-digit deg C - did not favour African runners.
Australian Tracy Britten, who ran the 10km race, said it was surreal doing so. "You just don't know what to expect, so here you are in the streets of Pyongyang running around, people are giving you a high five and it's just an incredible experience."
Western tourists to the North used to number about 5,000 a year, with US visitors making up about 20 per cent, and critics say Pyongyang profited from their presence. Standard one-week trips cost around US$2,000 (S$2,630), while shorter journeys can be less than half that.
But for some travellers, controversy about North Korea is appealing. As British television student Callum McCulloch, 23, who ran the half marathon, said: "If someone tells you not to go somewhere, not to do something, that makes you want to go there even more."