comscore At marathon in North Korea, curiosity goes a long way | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

At marathon in North Korea, curiosity goes a long way


PYONGYANG, North Korea » By 8:30 a.m. Sunday, the 50,000 seats in Kim Il Sung Stadium were nearly filled with men in Mao suits and coats and ties, women in dresses and heels, and police officers in olive-drab hats with crowns as wide as a discus.

Students carried paper megaphones and silver wooden clappers that flashed like flag semaphores and magnified the rhythmic applause, a sound of both welcoming and required exuberance.

In the hazy chill, I stood on the track with about 650 runners from about 30 countries who had come to challenge their preconceptions as well as their endurance.

We awaited the start of the Pyongyang Marathon, a brief opening into one of the world’s most closed and enigmatic countries and surely the only distance race with a promotional video featuring an all-accordion boy band doing a cover of Norwegian synth-pop music.

For the second year, foreign amateur runners were allowed to participate in a 10K race, a half-marathon or a full marathon in Pyongyang, the capital. The races were a part of the April 15 birthday celebration of Kim Il Sung, the former leader of North Korea and father of his successors: Kim Jong Il, a son, and Kim Jong Un, a grandson and the current ruler.

As we flew in by the hundreds on Saturday, the arrival hall at Sunan International Airport grew cramped and cold. After examining countless laptops, smartphones and passports, a security official gave the international smile of exasperation, caught my eye and said, "Tourists."

By Sunday, the mood at Kim Il Sung Stadium was one of throbbing, if rehearsed, enthusiasm. I warmed up along a curve of the track where backboards had been set up on an outdoor basketball court. Others jogged on the artificial surface of the soccer field inside the track. Almost everyone seemed to take photographs of the crowd, a huge one for the start of a marathon outside the Olympics.

A tone sounded, and race officials in red hats and white coats marshaled us for the start. There was some confusion about whether to exit the stadium down the backstretch or the homestretch. We faced one direction, then the other.

"If this was easy, it wouldn’t be North Korea," the runner next to me said.The white coats of the officials suggested some sort of athletic and social experiment. In February, Sunday’s races were abruptly closed to foreigners as North Korea cited continuing concerns about the spread of Ebola. Then, in March, with little explanation, the door opened again.

Tour operators and Korean guides offered several possible explanations: North Korea desperately needed hard currency from expanded tourism. It was attempting to generate mass interest in recreation. It was using sport to try to rehabilitate an "axis of evil" image of nuclear antagonism and widespread human rights abuse that, according to a 2013 United Nations report, included secret prison camps, torture, forced starvation and a paucity of free thought.

"Many people see our country as military development and poor people," said O Ryong Jong, an official in the North Korean sports ministry who was a guide on my marathon tour bus. "We want them to come and see for themselves."

North Korean runners mixed briefly with foreigners before Sunday’s races. Some posed for photographs while others shyly looked away. One young local runner held up his arms in Rocky-style determination; another hugged a teammate from behind and flashed the peace sign.

The international runners started first, dressed in our casual fluorescence, while the North Koreans followed an hour later, the fastest of them in singlets and racing flats, some of the women and girls with white ribbons around their waists. As many as 800 would run the race, according to a generous estimate by state-run news media, some competing unofficially without racing bibs.

Another guide on my tour bus, Pak Un Gyong, had carefully examined each of our running outfits. It was forbidden to depict flags of the United States, South Korea or Japan. And the logos of the apparel companies had to be muted. Last year, one runner was reported to have run in jeans because of a violation.

If the logos were obtrusive, Pak said the day before, "You must pay some money to the IAAF." This was a reference to track and field’s world governing body, which sanctioned the race, officially known as the Marathon Amateurs’ Running Race Celebrating the Day of the Sun.

Everybody in our group seemed to have passed sartorial muster. And with a roar we headed out of the stadium and past the 197-foot Arch of Triumph, a symbol of resistance to the Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.

"Have you been to France?" Pak had asked on a prerace tour of the course. "I hear this one is 11 meters taller."

Stopwatches and Bathrooms

We could not leave the loop course, but we could leave our minders for an hour or two or four. Maybe we could make a personal connection that seemed less scripted than the opening ceremony: a brief smile, a wave, a hello, a thank you, a small encouragement.

Or would it all be staged, a Potemkin race in an authoritarian capital for the elite and loyal, where Kim Jong Il was said to have scored a perfect 300 in his first bowling match and five holes in one on his maiden round of golf?

An early uphill stretch carried us past modest but encouraging crowds along a wide street of apricot blossoms. A police officer high-fived a few runners. A woman waved from the window of her apartment building. Other women in red jackets poured water into cups at small hydration tables.

The 6.2-mile loop brought us back and forth across the Taedong River via bridge and tunnel, the roads decorated with clusters of North Korean flags, their red star and red field meant to symbolize the spilled blood of liberation in a military-first nation.

Because Ebola concerns had disrupted planning of the race, only the Korean runners were issued computer chips for timing. The rest of us were timed with stopwatches every 3.1 miles.

The portable toilets familiar at most marathons were also absent. Discreet signs directed runners to bathrooms near the course. One was on the second floor of a building, another through a sundry shop, a restaurant and a karaoke bar.

"Last year, we had a guy who went to all the bathrooms because he couldn’t get into the buildings otherwise," said Tori Cook, a guide with Koryo Tours, a British-run company in Beijing that brought 270 foreign runners to Sunday’s race.

Cameras were officially off-limits to runners on the course, but the rule essentially seemed unenforced. No one rushed to confiscate them or seemed to object to being photographed.

"It feels looser, less controlled," said Zahlen Titcomb, 32, of Seattle, who traveled to Pyongyang in 2011 for an ultimate Frisbee competition.

Tourists bowed to their guides then, Titcomb said, and it would have been all but unthinkable to take a photograph without permission or to whoop and holler while running through a tunnel or to jump in the air to take a silly picture in front of a stadium or a monument.

"Nobody at the Vatican takes a photo pretending to hold Jesus in your hand," he said.

An Air Kiss and a Sly Wink

On my second lap of Sunday’s race, the crowd seemed to thin. For stretches, the only sounds came from bells on passing bicycles, martial music or a helicopter dropping parachutists to entertain the spectators in Kim Il Sung Stadium. Women in traditional dresses appeared as bright as lanterns against a backdrop of drab Stalinist apartment blocks that were as drained of color as some of the runners.

Children along the course seemed to grow bolder. Dressed in tracksuit jackets, or the red scarves and blue uniforms of young pioneers, they eagerly slapped hands with passing runners and often called out in English:

"Nice to meet you."

"Welcome to Korea."

"What is your name?"

"How old are you?"

During his half-marathon, Hank Mannen, 36, of the Netherlands, was startled to see a young woman blow him a kiss. He said he reciprocated, then thought for a moment, "She’s in big trouble now."

On the first of two laps of the half-marathon, Richard Friedman, 67, of New York patted his heart when he passed one of the austere women who direct traffic in Pyongyang. On the second lap, he patted his heart again.

"I swear she winked at me," Friedman said later. A friend, Martin Rojahn, 57, of Tasmania remained unconvinced, suggesting with a laugh that "she probably had something in her eye."

Just after I reached 13.1 miles, the elite North Koreans began to pass me in swift groups. I could barely hear their whispering strides. Meanwhile, I was stuck in a kind of no-man’s land, no amateur runner visible in front or behind. A man in a suit must have sensed the heaviness in my legs or the struggle in my face. He clapped softly on the sidewalk and said, "Very good."

A Four-Hour Cutoff

Looming above the other monuments to the Kim cult of personality was a triangular building on the gauzy horizon, the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, under construction since 1987 but never opened.

In 2013, Kim Jong Un ordered that North Korea increase its yearly total of foreign tourists to 1 million from 200,000 within three years, Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, wrote in "The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia."

To that end, North Korea is building a new airport terminal, inviting foreigners to Pyongyang’s marathon and international film festival and trying to entice jet-setters with a ski resort, perhaps a reflection of Kim Jong Un’s school years in Switzerland.

"It appears," Lankov wrote, that Kim "hopes to make his realm into an East Asian Switzerland, where crowds of rich Westerners will rush with pockets full of cash. This dream is highly unrealistic, especially given the sorry state of tourist infrastructure in the country."

Of more immediate concern late Sunday morning was the sorry state of my running. I am 60, and this was my fourth marathon in 12 months. My body was rebelling. I needed a cortisone shot in my left hip. My left knee crackled like a wood fire. I reached 18.6 miles in 3 hours 5 minutes, feeling exhausted with 7 1/2 miles remaining, facing a four-hour cutoff when the doors to Kim Il Sung Stadium would be closed.

"If you can’t finish in four hours, there’s no punishment, right?" Lucy Guo, 36, of China, had asked nervously before the race.

No, Richard Beal, a guide, assured her. Race officials would pick her up.

"They’re not going to make you keep going," he said.

I would never have another chance to take a lap around a full stadium, so I called it quits, pausing outside to see the top two North Korean professionals, Ri Yong-ho and Ra Hyon-ho, push each other toward the finish in about 2:14.

A match involving the North Korean soccer league was underway as I entered the stadium. The crowd was cheering, prompted by yell leaders. I waved but did not see anyone waving back. Later, at dinner, I laughed to myself when I overheard another runner say of the victory lap: "Sure, it was staged, but who cares? It was great."

After the marathon, medalists at various distances were celebrated at a closing ceremony. Sitting in the stands, Mannen, the Dutch runner who had been blown a kiss, considered what he would tell his friends at home. Some would insist it had all been a fake.

Not everyone’s reaction could have been staged on the course, said Roeland Loof, 33, a fellow Dutch runner. Especially the children. Children do what they want.

"In the U.S. and Europe, we’re as brainwashed as they are here," Loof said.

After finishing third in the half-marathon for international amateurs, Filippo Nicosia, a diplomat at the Italian Embassy in Beijing, spoke in Korean to a group of female students. He tossed them his bouquet of flowers. The woman who caught it seemed surprised. Everyone laughed.

"This is just a slight opening up, not a structural change," said Nicosia, 39, who was formerly based in Seoul. "Like when the New York Philharmonic came in 2008. A small drop in an ocean. It doesn’t really change anything, but it gives curiosity a chance to turn into warmth."

Jeri Longman, New York Times

Comments have been disabled for this story...

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature

Scroll Up