Running the Pyongyang marathon - why it's on the bucket list

Competitors racing in Pyongyang, with the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel in the background. The marathon is the highlight of the tourism calendar in isolated North Korea.
Competitors racing in Pyongyang, with the pyramid-shaped Ryugyong Hotel in the background. The marathon is the highlight of the tourism calendar in isolated North Korea.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PYONGYANG • Hundreds of foreigners lined up in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Stadium yesterday for the city's annual marathon, the highlight of the tourism calendar in isolated North Korea.

The 40,000 plus-capacity ground was packed for the event, with the crowd warmly applauding as the runners gathered on the artificial pitch.

Portraits of the country's founding father Kim Il Sung and his late son and heir Kim Jong Il smiled down from the roof.

The event commemorated the 105th anniversary of Kim Il Sung's birth, which falls on April 15. A row of dignitaries was in attendance, with at least four of them in military uniforms.

Nearly 2,000 people entered the event, with more than half of them foreigners - mostly Europeans and other Westerners. They took part even though North Korea is under multiple sets of United Nations sanctions for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Washington is also diverting a carrier strike group towards the Korean peninsula as tensions mount.

"It's a bit surreal, where we are," said Irishman Richie Leahy, 35, who likes holidays that are "more of an adventure".

"This just ticked all the boxes," he told AFP. "I took part in a sporting event in North Korea, it's not something that everyone can say."

Soon after the start, the course passed an obelisk declaring "The great leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il will always be with us".

The runners made their way past city landmarks including Kim Il Sung Square and Mansu Hill, where giant bronze statues of the two men gaze over the capital.

Local runner Pak Chol, 27, established a commanding lead in the men's race several kilometres out, and recorded his third victory in the event in 2hr 13min 56sec. His compatriot Jo Un Ok was the first woman across the line in 2hr 29min 23sec.

Mr Nick Bonner, director of Koryo Tours, a specialist agency with the exclusive rights to bring Europeans and other Westerners to the marathon, estimates that excluding visitors from China - North Korea's sole ally and main business partner - the country receives only around 5,000 tourists a year.

That means the marathon accounts for nearly a fifth of them.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Running the Pyongyang marathon - why it's on the bucket list'. Print Edition | Subscribe