On Sunday, April 13, as some of the world’s best marathoners take to the streets of England’s capital for the Virgin Money London Marathon, a smaller group of amateurs will take advantage of policy changes in North Korea and make their way through Pyongyang for the Mangyongdae prize International Marathon.
Popularly known as the Pyongyang Marathon, the race is now in its 27th year, and for the first time, government officials have opened registration to non-elite foreign runners. As the Telegraph reports, some 200 athletes from around the globe will head to the North Korean capital, many traveling in groups through international tourism companies.
"I think a lot of the attraction is the 'Pyongyang' part rather than the 'marathon' part," said Beijing-based travel agent Simon Cockerell, according to the AP. “A lot of the people going along to take part are interested in simply doing something a bit unusual, something that would cause a bit of cognitive dissonance in friends of theirs when they tell them they ran a marathon in North Korea.”
The “cognitive dissonance,” of course, stems from North Korea’s status as a communist nation with a long history of antagonistic relations with the West. While the opening-up for the Pyongyang marathon isn’t likely to change things a great deal, it’s the latest in a string of efforts by the North Korean government to increase tourism, the AP reports.
Earlier this year, officials unveiled a high-end ski resort and announced plans to establish special trade and tourism zones throughout the nation. That means tourists will finally get to see more of the notoriously closed-off country, though on Sunday, the adventurous few partaking of the mostly flat 26.2-mile course likely won’t venture beyond Pyongyang.
The marathon starts and finishes at the 70,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium, where spectators will watch soccer and volleyball matches, as well as martial arts exhibitions, while participants make their way past the Monument to Chinese Soldiers, through the Kim Il Sung University area, and over the Taedong River.
While most top-tier runners racing a marathon that day will be in London, the Pyongyang Marathon is gaining respectability, and last year, Ketema Nigusse of Ethiopia won with a time of 2:13:04. The new registration guidelines could help to attract more first-rate talent, though as the Telegraph reports, North Korea might have more to gain than athletic prestige.
“The decision to open up the event to tourists reflects North Korea's growing desire to tap into the potentially lucrative overseas tourism market in a bid to boost the regime’s financial fortunes,” the paper reports.
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg