Mon, Apr 10, 2017 - Page 11 News List

High-fives at Pyongyang Marathon

ONCE IN A LIFETIME:Local runners were the victors in the men’s and women’s divisions. However, more than half of the participants were curious foreigners

AFP, PYONGYANG

Participants in yesterday’s Pyongyang Marathon wait at the start line in North Korea.

Photo: AP

Hundreds of foreigners yesterday lined up in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Stadium for the city’s annual marathon, the highlight of the tourism calendar in North Korea.

The 40,000-plus capacity ground was packed for the event, the crowd warmly applauding as the runners gathered on the artificial pitch, with portraits of North Korea’s founding father Kim Il-sung and his late son and heir Kim Jong-il smiling down from the roof.

The event is part of the commemorations for Kim Il-sung’s birthday on April 15, 105 years ago, and a row of dignitaries was in attendance — at least four of them in military uniform.

About 2,000 people entered the event, more than half of them foreigners — mostly Europeans and other Westerners.

They took part even though North Korea is under multiple sets of UN sanctions over its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and Washington is diverting a carrier strike group toward 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 said. “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 on past city landmarks including Kim Il-sung Square and Mansu Hill Grand Monument, where giant bronze statues of the two men gaze out over the capital.

Local runner Pak Chol, 27, established a commanding lead in the men’s race several kilometers out and recorded his third victory in the event in two hours 13 minutes and 56 seconds.

His compatriot Jo Un-ok was the first woman across the line in two hours 29 minutes and 23 seconds.

Despite the geopolitical tensions — only last week the UN Security Council condemned North Korea’s latest missile launch — knots of spectators gathered along the route, cheering the runners on and exchanging high-fives with them.

Spontaneous encounters with North Koreans are normally rare on visits to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the country is officially known.

“Really being with people, greeting them, touching them. It’s really quite something,” said Soleiman Dias, an international school admissions director from Fortaleza in Brazil, who described the run as “the experience of a lifetime.”

American artist Tamara Bedford added: “To have so many people here to watch all of us is really an honor.”

Critics say that tourism to North Korea helps to bolster a regime accused of widespread human rights abuses as well as its weapons ambitions, which include developing a missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead to the continental US.

Among a host of measures, the UN sanctions include a cap on coal exports, by far the North’s biggest foreign currency earner, but do not directly ban tourism.

The US Department of State “strongly urges” its citizens to avoid all travel to North Korea on its Web site, urging would-be visitors to “consider what they might be supporting.”

Nick Bonner, director of Koryo Tours, a specialist agency which has 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 anout 5,000 tourists a year.

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