Officials in North Korea allowed foreign amateurs to compete in Sunday’s Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon for the first time in the event's 27-year history, part of the Hermit Kingdom’s push to boost tourism in an economy damaged by mismanagement and international sanctions.
The capital Pyongyang played host to 225 amateurs from 27 countries, according to event organizers, with participants coming from Russia, Ukraine, Spain, China, Taiwan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Namibia, South Africa, Rwanda, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, according to a report Friday by KCNA, the state news agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Runners from the U.K., Australia and Canada also reportedly paid the $100 entry fee to participate. More than 42,000 spectators in Kim Il-sung Stadium (named for the nation's founder) cheered them on, in addition to thousands more on the streets of Pyongyang, a city of 2.5 million.
The International Association of Athletics Federation designates the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon as a bronze-label event. While it’s not the first time foreign runners have participated (foreign professionals have won the last two Pyongyang marathons), officials hoped that by opening up the relatively low-level marathon to recreation runners, they could attract hordes of visitors to the myriad cultural events marking the anniversary of the founder's birth, on April 15, 1912.
Foreigners visiting North Korea are often used for propaganda purposes to demonstrate to the North Korean people how citizens from around the world venerate the Kims. The Associated Press noted that foreign runners in Sunday’s marathon were prohibited from carrying American or Japanese flags or wearing clothing with writing deemed inappropriate or politically motivated.
A large swath of North Korea remains closed off to foreign visitors, yet an increasing number have turned up on the broad avenues of Pyongyang in recent years with specialized tour operators. Their supervised trips typically include visits to government-sanctioned performances and attractions the young leader Kim Jong-un wishes to show off.
To keep the foreigners coming, North Korea has invested in a frenzy of new tourism projects over the past three years. In fact, Jo Song Gyu, director of the International Travel Company of the DPRK, told KCNA last August that the reclusive nation would direct “big efforts” to build tourism into one of its largest industries.
Gyu told the paper that the country would open up regular air routes between Pyongyang, Lake Samji and Wonsan for local and foreign tourists in the near future and expand air routes to China from Beijing to cities like Shanghai and Yanji. “Air services will also be available for people in Southeast Asia and Europe to come to DPRK for sightseeing,” he boasted. “Wonsan and Mts. Maeku and Chilbo areas are likely to be linked with other countries and regions by air services.
“The government will allow foreigners to launch independent business or joint venture in the country to invest in tourist resorts and economic development zones and construct and manage hotels, shops and other tourist facilities,” Gyo noted, adding that North Korea would render preferential treatment to foreign businesses that come to the DPRK sooner rather than later “so that they can begin making profits as early as possible.”
While a North Korean official has rarely been so direct in his plans for the nation’s nascent tourism sector, the country has made several steps toward buoying its industry in recent years. Most have ended in complete failure.
One of the first forays into luxury travel was a proposed cruise ship from the run-down northeastern port of Rason to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, launched in September 2011. In reality, the ship was an aging ferry banned from traveling to Japan under U.N. sanctions, and after inviting the global media for a ride, the ferry-cum-cruise made just two more voyages, according to Tad Farrel of NK News.
In November 2012, German luxury hotelier Kempinski made the shocking announcement that it would open at least 100 rooms by the end of 2013 at the long-abandoned Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea’s tallest building. Amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula last April, however, it made the less shocking revelation that it had pulled out of the project.
And then there was the fiasco with NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman and his exhibition basketball game in Pyongyang this January. Rodman was lambasted in the Western media for the trip, supposedly to promote “basketball diplomacy,” and several members of his coterie quickly distanced themselves from the project.
Despite the litany of setbacks, North Korea’s sporting and tourism ambitions show no signs of abating. The government once again announced plans earlier this year to open special trade and tourism zones throughout the country, while Jung-un unveiled a new “luxury” ski resort said to rival facilities being built in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.
The hope was that the hills well beyond the eastern edge of Pyongyang would look remarkably similar to those surrounding Pyeongchang, the 2018 Olympic host city. Yet, the North Korean resort boasts just 11 ski runs.
Even if its ambitions don’t match its actions, North Korea has succeeded in one thing: piquing the curiosity of would-be tourists. Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, the two largest companies ushering foreigners into the country, report numbers up year-on-year. Both justify their controversial tours by explaining that face-to-face interactions encourage dialog and exchanges with everyday North Koreans that can lead to a more productive way of working together. Critics, however, aren’t convinced.
“Nice as it would be to think that normal human-to-human interaction between foreign visitors and North Koreans could make a difference, that's just not the case,” Melanie Kirkpatrick, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of "Escape From North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad," told International Business Times last year. “North Korea is not a normal nation, and tourists have little or no access to ordinary people.
“Foreign visitors are helping to prop up the despicable regime that brutalizes the North Korean people [and] they are doing so with their money and their presence,” she added. “We know that it doesn't use its foreign currency to buy food for its starving people or medicine for the sick. We know it uses it for military purposes and to pay off its insiders.”