Running A (Half) Marathon In North Korea
I was one of 630 foreigners to participate in the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon. It was the second year the regime in North Korea opened the marathon to foreign amateur runners, and when I first read about it, I knew that this was something I needed to do.
I wanted to run this marathon for two reasons. For one, it seemed to be the perfect excuse to make a trip to the infamous and closed-off country. I am a keen adventure traveler, having been to many exotic places, including Nepal, Mongolia, the Golden Triangle and the Tibetan Plateaux. I live in Beijing and I have visited pretty much every country in Asia but, despite its proximity to China, I’ve never made it to such an outpost of society.
The other reason I was drawn to visit North Korea is the constant exposure the country receives in the media. It seems like every day brings another weird headline about Kim Jung Un, and I see photos of him constantly — either as part of a report or as part of a spoof. I felt it was about time to make my own picture of the country, of its people, and of the reality they live under.
Getting to North Korea
The trip was actually much less complicated than I had thought it would be. I signed up with a tour operator called Uritours and they took care of everything. You literally fill in a few forms on their website and make the payment, and then they make the arrangements, including the visa — which nothing more than a simple sheet of paper they hand you before you check-in at the airport.In fact, on entry and exit, North Korea doesn’t even stamp your passport.
Other than your memories and souvenirs (you can choose between ginseng, stamps or cool propaganda posters), there is to be no trace of your visit to the hermit kingdom.
We boarded a North Korean Koryo Airlines plane in Beijing and made our way to Pyongyang. There are three flights a week to Pyongyang from Beijing and Moscow, and weekly flights from Shenyang, Vladivostok and Bangkok. Because of the marathon, there were additional charter flights available departing from Shanghai. The quality of the flight was better than I expected; they handed out the Pyongyang Times, a North Korean propaganda paper in English, and a cold burger that actually tasted fine.
Approaching Pyongyang, I couldn’t see any paved roads in the countryside — only dirt tracks. Cars were sparse, just a few people on bicycles; and while Beijing was already in full spring bloom, North Korea was brown and dusty; a rather cold first impression that didn’t dispel my preconceived notions of what the country would be like.
The airport was strange, a one-story building comprised of a single large room. Since there are so few planes coming and going, the room serves as both arrival and departure hall depending on the need (at the time of writing, a new airport was being built just next door). Visitors to North Korea are required to carefully list everything they are bringing into the country, and their luggage is checked for these items.
Special focus is placed on mobile phones and books, each of which is recorded to ensure neither is left behind when visitors leave.
Nobody bothered to check upon exit, but I suppose the risk of being caught is deterrent enough for most. I reckon you can bring in just about anything, although it’s probably advisable to leave your Bible at home.
From there, our group boarded a bus and assumed a seat that, it turned out, would be his or hers for the next three days. Waiting for us was Ms. Lee, our North Korean “minder.” She was to be our guide; our sole source of answers and, more importantly, our political consciousness for the duration of our stay.
Almost immediately, she firmly laid out the first rule of tourism in North Korea: no pictures are to be taken while on the bus. And with that, off we went, en route to the capital, cameras in hand, ready to shoot from the bus, quietly soaking in the first impressions of this strange country.
As darkness set in, only a few lights could be seen in the standardized apartment blocks dictated by soviet-style city planning. Cars on the road were rare, though as we got closer to the city center, there were more than I expected. What was most striking about Pyongyang, though, was the sheer numbers of people walking about or lingering around on the streets. It seemed that nobody was at home, everyone was outside walking. Everyone was on some sort of schedule, heading firmly and confidently to his or her destination.
Where were they all going?
We checked into our hotel — one of several “approved” for foreigners — enjoyed a mediocre dinner, met a few fellow runners, and quickly retired in order to be ready for the big race the following day.
Of the many factors that make the Pyongyang Marathon so special, the venue for the start and finish of the race, the Kim Il Song Stadium, really stood out. The arena seats around fifty thousand people, and on race day it was a full house. As we arrived in our busses, fans were already streaming silently into the stadium, but when we stepped through the gates into the arena, the feeling of being greeted by that many people was nothing short of amazing.
The race route itself is a ten kilometer lap. Participants in the 10k race do it once, the half-marathon runners go twice, and the full marathon heroes lap four times. I would have chosen the 10k, but because it doesn’t finish in the stadium, I opted for the half-marathon.
The route was less scenic than I had hoped. It starts with the Arc of Triumph — the highest in the world, Ms. Lee ensured us, besting the one in Paris by some 11 meters! — and then climbs up a hill beside soviet style housing compounds. At one point there’s a tunnel, followed by a bridge crossing which marks the 5k mark. From there, it’s down along the Teadong River — the “real” cradle of mankind, per Ms. Lee, with relics found here dating back over one million years — then over another bridge, through another tunnel, and alongside more housing compounds until you finally find yourself back at the stadium.
By far the best thing about the race was the people lining the streets. Whenever I could take my mind off catching my breath and focusing on my run, I was high-fiving fans by the hundreds from the very young to the very old.
I estimate there were around five thousand lining the 10k route alone.
Many just stood there and watched, but some where really excited, cheering us on and holding their hands out for contact with the runners. Some kids where even running along, shouting in English, “Hello, how are you, what’s your name?” It struck me that this was probably one of the very few times foreigners have actually been able to interact sincerely and without government interference/monitoring with the people of North Korea.
It was a truly beautiful and memorable experience, and the support of the onlookers greatly contributed to me being able to complete the half-marathon. They kept me going, they kept me thinking about them, their political situation and the reality of their lives. Theirs is a reality I’m unlikely to fully understand, and I certainly wasn’t going to get any closer to them from the seat of the bus under the watchful eye of Ms. Lee.
We finished the race in front of those same fifty thousand supporters, who were eerily clapping and waving flags according to a strict rhythm, as dictated by directors assigned to every seating block. I don’t think that any of the spectators in the stadium really cared about us; they had simply been assigned by the government to attend the event and show the world how “welcome” the foreign runners were.
Pyongyang and the Leaders
The schedule was tight. Most of us had signed up for just a short three-day trip, which meant that after the race we had just enough time to shower or eat — not both. This was also due to the elevator situation at the hotel. With 47 floors, two of the four elevators were working, each stopping at every floor. A 20 minute wait to get back to our rooms was the norm.
(For the record, I opted for a shower, and then went to the convenience store in the lobby and bought myself some German chocolate cookies. They actually had a good selection of sweet and salty snacks from a certain grocery chain in Germany called Edeka.
As for how those goods got to Pyongyang? Look away, nothing to see here.)
After the break, we got back on our bus and started a sightseeing tour. The first stop was the Mansudae Grand Monument, which every tourist is required to visit. (Naturally, every North Korean must, too.) It shows the two leaders, Kim Jung Il pointing somewhere, and Kim Il Song looking in the same direction. There are three leaders in North Korea.
Kim Il Sung is the “Eternal President of the Republic”.
He is the one always shown leading the way forward. Everyone loves him, so the story goes, he is the man. He was the one to kick out the Japanese, he created the Juche philosophy that guides the Republic, he led the nation through the Korean War, and thusly, is the role model for everyone and everything. He passed away in 1994.
While Il Sung seems to have earned his status by accomplishment, however you wish to define them, his son, Kim Jong Il, in contrast, seems to more closely personify the hot-tempered, nutter mentality more commonly associated with the North Korean dictatorship. Ms. Lee hardly talked about him, in pictures and on monuments — there were A LOT of them — he always stands behind his father. In fact, it looked as if the artists didn’t really want to include him in the pictures in the first place, did so merely on account of him being Supreme Leader from 1994 to 2011.
Wikipedia says about Jong Il:
“During Kim’s regime, the country suffered from famine, partially due to economic mismanagement, and had a poor human rights record. Kim involved his country in state terrorism and strengthened the role of the military by his Songun, or “military-first”, politics. Kim’s rule also saw tentative economic reforms, including the opening of the Kaesong Industrial Park in 2003.”
Which brings us to the infamous Kim Jung Un, who was nowhere to be seen during our visit. We had hoped to see him in the stadium during the marathon, but he was absent — both physically and by representation. The only evidence we saw of his existence was on television (by photo, not video) where he was inspecting the new airport or visiting a shoe factory.
If this seems strange, that’s because it was, but perhaps he is just keeping a low profile on account of his newness at the whole dictator thing.
To his credit, he did bring Pyongyang a water park and a roller coaster — both of which happened to be closed on the weekend we were there.
After we bowed at the monument, we headed to the war museum, which treated us to an hour and a half of propaganda surrounding the Japanese occupation, the “imperialist American annexation” of the South, and “the truth about the Korean war.”
We were permitted to board the USS Pueblo, an American spy ship which was captured in the late 1960s and kept as a trophy.
The museum itself is quite modern, replete with 360 degree rotating diorama multimedia show, and is a mix of a traditional museum and Madame Tussauds. There are many depictions which detail the gruesome scenes of the war.
Visiting these monuments and institutions makes the ideology, beliefs and realities of North Korea very clear. On one hand, there is the “Leadership” cult, which so clearly highlights the absence of freedom and indoctrination of the society into a world which no longer exists outside of the country’s borders. Then, there is North Korea’s hermit-country status; a nation with no friends, but clinging to a widespread belief in reunification with the South. (No one else favours reunification.)
The scene left me with mixed emotions.
On one level, if I squinted really hard, I could understand some of the points made by the propaganda. Walking through the museum, I started to sympathize with the North Korea that is a victim of imperialist America and the West. Hearing of the great achievements of Kim Jung Il, I gathered why he is so revered as a shining light in this dark country.
It was still only propaganda, of course — brainwashing. But as Roeland Loof, a Dutch fellow runner says in this New York Times article:
“In the U.S. and Europe, we’re as brainwashed as they are here.”
Is there a better or a worse? Hard to say, it always depends on who you are and where you look from.
That evening we finished with a nice hotpot dinner, drinking beer and local rice liquors, before heading to a microbrewery for more beers. Finally, we were brought back to the hotel where everyone drank at the bar until one in the morning when the waiters kicked us out. It was the North Korean experience, at least as much as foreigners are able to get.
The Sightseeing Day
The last day was spent mostly on one activity, a two hour bus ride down to the South Korean border and a visit to the DMZ (the demilitarized zone between the North and the South). The road seemed to be the only paved road outside the city and no cyclists or pedestrians were allowed on it. There was no fence, but we were able to see members of the rural population quietly walking or cycling on parallel dust roads.
Sometimes you could see a person actually cleaning the road.
Despite the maintenance, however, the road was in a horrible condition and I was fortunate (or wise) that I had chosen the middle section of the bus. The other runners sitting at the front and back of the bus found the bouncy ride to be much less enjoyable, on account of the shitty roads.
We eventually made it safely to the border, visited a souvenir shop and bought some memorabilia, before we were escorted to an area comprised of several buildings adjacent to the actual border. This, of course, was home those famous blue houses, where the soldiers from the North and the South stare each other out across the demarcation line.
We saw the flags of each Nation, smoked cigarettes, and took some selfies at one of the world’s most hotly contested pieces of real estate.
While in the south of North Korea, we also visited Kaesong, a special city where there is, believe it or not, some cross-border exchange going on. It’s an industrial zone, but tourism also seems to be big there, in relative terms. Kaesong is famous for its Koryo museum and its ginseng produce, and we had the chance to buy some ginseng products and more stamps before we had a decent lunch in a designated restaurant for tourists.
Driving to the restaurant, we saw hardly any cars, only people on bicycles moving sacks of rice, kids with schoolbags on their backs, and others washing clothes in dirty rivers or loitering at intersections. A fairly simple life for one of Korea’s biggest cities.
After lunch, we made our way back to the capital, where we then had the chance to take the metro from one station to another. Pyongyang’s metro is the deepest in the world, according to Ms. Lee — 100 meters or more, and its 17 stations are all designed uniquely for their location. That was the last thing we got to see before calling it a day, and heading back to our rooms to rest for our 8 a.m. flight back to civilization.
Running the Marathon in North Korea helped me form my own opinion about a country and a people so prominently featured in the world press, yet so inaccessible to the vast majority of us. I was surprised to find Pyongyang to be quite a modern city — even despite its lack of widespread electricity and transportation.
I saw a few new luxury cars like S-class Mercedes and Audi Q7s, which seems to indicate some movement towards a system similar to China’s communist one, with capitalist features.
Overall, I felt as if I was teleported into the 1950s, with little electricity, and even fewer modern conveniences, but the strongest image, for me, remains the countless people walking the streets aimlessly toward an uncertain destiny. The people I saw looked well fed, properly dressed and generally not very interested in foreigners, which really surprised me.
At one point during the trip, my neighbour on the bus asked, “Do you think they are happy? They just look so serious.” Did they look happy? I don’t know. What is happiness, anyway? And for the people of North Korea, their lives are all they know.
So this is where I park my North Korean experience for now. For the immediate future, I am content to just keep reading and learning about this enigmatic country. I hope that in time, the people I saw walking along the roads will find their destinations. Especially the kids who gave me high-fives along the run.