Foreigners flock to marathon in North Korea as political tensions ease

Runners at the Pyongyang marathon yesterday. Although Americans are banned from visiting North Korea, the race saw 950 participants from Western countries, compared with some 450 last year.
Runners at the Pyongyang marathon yesterday. Although Americans are banned from visiting North Korea, the race saw 950 participants from Western countries, compared with some 450 last year.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • Twice as many foreigners as last year gathered in Pyongyang yesterday for the city's annual marathon, tour companies said, as reduced tensions see visitor numbers rise in isolated North Korea.

The event - part of the celebrations for the anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung's birth in 1912 - is the highlight of the North's tourism calendar and offers the chance to run or jog through the streets of the tightly controlled city.

Koryo Tours said around 950 Westerners entered the race, compared with some 450 last year.

That brought participation almost back to the levels of 2017, before tensions soared as the North launched a series of missiles and its leader Kim Jong Un traded threats and personal insults with United States President Donald Trump.

The same year, American citizens were banned from visiting the North following the death of US student Otto Warmbier, who was jailed for trying to steal a propaganda poster and died in a mysterious coma days after his release.

Several countries then raised their travel warnings, dealing a blow to the North's tourism industry.

While the US ban remains in place, more Western tourists have signed up for the marathon this time, following a year of high-level diplomacy between Mr Trump and Mr Kim.

 
 
 
 

"As political tensions have subsided, tourism demand has increased," said Mr Elliott Davies, director at Uri Tours. "You could plot a graph in this direct relationship."

The vast majority of tourists to the North are Chinese. Some 5,000 Westerners used to visit the North every year, about 20 per cent of those from the US.

The race also attracts so-called "Marathon Chasers" who tick off runs around the world, said Mr Matt Kulesza, a senior tour guide at Young Pioneer Tours.

Mr Angel Arnaudov, a 34-year-old engineer from Macedonia, said Pyongyang had been on his "radar" since he finished more than 30 marathons in cities such as Tokyo, New York and Copenhagen.

"I want to experience the life in North Korea myself and see if it is like they say on TV or different," he said, adding he would be posting videos on his YouTube channel.

For third-time participant Jasmine Barrett, the run was an opportunity to interact with ordinary North Koreans who line the streets to cheer on the runners, offering high-fives and posing for selfies.

"I keep coming back because I love to see the smiles on the children's faces," the Australian entrepreneur said. "I'd definitely recommend it to others because it's a great way to see the city and the people who live there."

Tour operators advise visitors to the North to take extra precautions about "what to do and what not to do".

Koryo Tours general manager Simon Cockerell said: "This is vital when visiting North Korea, and anyone wanting to travel shouldn't go without a briefing."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 08, 2019, with the headline 'Foreigners flock to marathon in N. Korea as political tensions ease'. Print Edition | Subscribe