Loneliness of the long distance runners in North Korea

Published April 8, 2018, 10:00 PM

by Francine Ciasico

By Agence France-Presse

A few hundred foreigners lined up in Kim Il Sung stadium Sunday for the Pyongyang marathon, less than half of last year’s contingent with Western tourism to North Korea battered by nuclear tensions and a US travel ban.

The Pyongyang Marathon is normally the annual peak for Western tourism to the isolated country. (AFP photo)
The Pyongyang Marathon is normally the annual peak for Western tourism to the isolated country. (AFP photo)

A packed crowd in the 47,000-capacity arena cheered and applauded before the runners streamed out of the stadium beneath portraits of the North’s founder and his son and successor Kim Jong Il.

The event -– part of the celebrations for the anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth in 1912 — is normally the annual peak for Western tourism to the isolated country, offering visitors the chance to run or jog through the streets of Pyongyang.

But fears of conflict reached fresh heights last year as the North made rapid progress in its nuclear and missile ambitions under Kim Jong Un, the third member of the Kim dynasty to rule, carrying out its most powerful atomic test to date and launching rockets bringing the continental United States into range.
AFP / Ed JONES The event offers visitors the chance to run or jog through the streets of Pyongyang

Several new sets of UN Security Council sanctions were imposed, and in September Washington effectively banned US citizens from visiting following the death of tourist Otto Warmbier, while several other countries stepped up their travel warnings.

The measures remain in place despite a rapid rapprochement triggered by the Winter Olympics in the South, with Kim due to meet the South’s President Moon Jae-in later this month, ahead of a summit with US President Donald Trump.

A total of 429 foreign amateurs entered the Pyongyang Marathon this year, compared with more than 1,000 in 2017.

“The tourism industry in general has fallen substantially since the middle of last year,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, the market leader.

“All the political dramas, military crises have brought the industry down by at least half.”

 
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