When you think about North Korea, one of the last things that come to mind is any sort of international display of unity. But this month, a 25-year old Vancouver woman now living in Shanghai was invited into the the Hermit Kingdom to run a marathon in Pyongyang, and see an entirely different side of the country.
Jen Loong was one of the 225 runners from 27 different countries invited to run in the annual Mangyondgae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang on April 13. Though the 26-mile and 385 yard run has been taking place since the early 1980s, this was the first time the race was open to international runners.
VICE News: How did you get picked to run in North Korea's marathon?
Jen Loong: There is actually no selection process or qualifying requirements to participate in the race. While I have heard that in the past only a selected few are allowed in into North Korea, I didn't experience the same level of difficulty in pre-trip logistics. Some of my runner friends in Shanghai mentioned that there was this incredible opportunity, so we signed on with the folks at youngpioneertours.com, and they took care of all visa and travel related details. Two months later, we got our boarding passes at Beijing Airport to board Koryo Air!
How was the race different than other ones you’ve run?
It couldn't be more different.
On the afternoon we flew in, the tour bus drove along the race route once, and I remember just being in awe more so to finally see these closed-off streets for the first time with my own two eyes. I saw men just getting off work from their long Saturday — they work 6 days a week there, carrying little red notebooks possibly filled with Party propaganda or kind notes-to-self. The night before we ran, our guide explained over dinner certain race logistics, and he went beyond his means to remind us to 1) set our alarm clocks, 2) wear full-body track suits with logos less than 4mm for the opening ceremonies, 3) not bring our phones, cameras, music player, and snacks for the run itself. He also said that there would be a bus driving around, picking up anyone who didn't finish at the stadium before the qualifying time expired.
On race day, I have never started a marathon inside a stadium of A 50,000 person cheering audience. We walked one full lap around the track, waving at all these people clapping in impeccable unison, before ending up in the middle of the lawn, looking up at the leaders' table where their country's top government officials sat. There was no sign of Kim Jong-un, but we listened to the crowd chanting the national anthem as the flag for the race rose on high.
On the run itself, I marveled at how fast most of the Koreans started off the race with. Most of them were half the size of me, [with] unanimous bowl-cut hairstyles, sporting red or blue race jumpers in Asics shoes. They sped off at the fire of the gun, and I supposed most of them were running the 10km distance. Along the way, there were streets and neighborhoods packed with curious crowds — from children to grandmas, teenagers to soldiers, poor to well-off, enthusiastic to skeptical.
I caught myself tired less so from the run, but more so from smiling and waving incessantly. Some of the schoolchildren ran with us for a few hundred meters before turning back to their parents. We ran through almost all the party monuments, shuttling through major tunnels, bridges, rivers, and of course ran by the stadium where they host the annual Mass Games in the fall.
When we crossed the finish line in the stadium at the end, there was a soccer match happening concurrently on the fields. The juxtaposition was that this could be any Sunday in a western country, where citizens packed into a stadium cheering on their soccer team, listening to marching band music, watching runners finish up on their long journeys. The only thing missing was food stalls, and of course the judging suspicious whether all this was for show, or genuine, in the Party's efforts to open up this truly isolated state.
What surprised you most about North Korea?
How genuinely artistically brilliant a lot of the men and women were, and their emphasis on the arts was everywhere. I was lucky enough to see thousands of university students performing the mass dance in their main square on Kim Il Sung's birthday, followed by a disciplined Pyongyang Philharmonic performance, cheerful performers in the restaurants on their guitar, keyboard, saxophone and microphone — not to mention the everyday grandpas and grandmas singing and dancing in the parks.
The biggest surprise then is the juxtaposition in how the west has painted NK, and how much the same can be said about western societies. NK's labor camp system is just a mirror of how Germany treated its prisoners during the Holocaust. I am not sure how many innocent visitors went to East Berlin at the time without ever dreaming that such crimes were possible, or that how many Germans were ashamed at what their country had committed, but still incessantly believed that their country would revive to move on and redeem.
The "showmanship" in Pyongyang reminds me of how ironic it is that most of us are living "happily" under the pretense that we chase after the next music festival or brand-name promotion, shuttling through numbing careers, gathering debt and bad health, all the while standing by, witnessing crimes committed in our communities like gun shootings and environmental destruction. It's easy to judge from far away with minimal risk or involvement. Some of those human connections in the parks and on the streets were genuine and real.
What made you want to go to North Korea?
With so much emphasis on labor camps and crimes against humanity surrounding North Korea, I wanted to go and see for myself what their average citizens looked like. While Pyongyang may not be indicative of the rest of the country, I saw at least some simplicity, which I didn't expect. April is the regime's instilled Cleaning Month, and I saw middle-aged women squatting down on lawns outside of their apartment complexes picking weed grass, one root at a time. I don't see that type of civic responsibility anywhere else in the Western world, and though it may be have been forcefully required of their citizens, at least I saw human beings doing their part truly for their neighbors and their societies.
What was athlete housing like? Where did you stay during the race?
We stayed in the Yanggadoe Hotel, which is a complex housed on an island away from downtown Pyongyang. Inside the building, there was everything you can think of to make a Las Vegas property jump to life — casinos in the basement, spa parlor, bowing lane, karaoke rooms, BBC News on the TVs in rooms, just to name a few. There were a few propaganda souvenir and bookshops inside the complex as well. The decorations in the rooms resembled a movie set from the 70s, with the tap water running brown when I first turned them on. I was told the rooms were bugged ahead of time, so I carefully watched what I said and didn't say to avoid trouble.
Did you feel uneasy at all being there? Did your minders make you aware that you were being monitored?
I actually felt uneasy for much of the trip. I socialized very little on the tour itself, whispered as much as I could in the hotel room, and looked at every interaction with utmost filter and judgment. It's easy to do all this when you have read all the journalism, books, documentaries, and commentaries about how scary of a place this country is. You are constantly under watch, by soldiers, by civic police, by our tour guide, just to name a few. When I took a picture of some architecture at the DMZ Guest Welcome Center, deliberately without including any soldiers or sensitive propaganda in the frame, my tour guide then tapped my shoulder in the souvenir shop and requested that a soldier wanted to see my phone. They both then insisted that I deleted the photo with no questions asked. When we were walking through the capital, I also saw suspicious groups of well-groomed children who would march out with their teachers insisting that we take group pictures together. Even the average citizens are watching. But then I just started taking pictures and video to document with minimal judgment, just to truly be an observer on how they went about their days.
When I sit down and review all that I saw and heard, I recognize that I too was a victim of their regime's installation of fear. Looking at my footage, I met cheerful seniors dancing with me in the park, curious kids chasing me around wearing leaves on their heads, giggling teenagers who shied away when I asked what their names were during the race, and a tour guide who was fearless in sharing candidly his respect for his country in what he believed to be a place of fairness and kindness. They don't know what they don't know.
What was the most surreal moment of your experience in North Korea?
When I got pulled by the arm by a grandma into a dancing crowd of maybe 50-plus adults on the top of Moran Hill, I found myself being twirled by a gentleman whom the grandma had specifically picked from the crowd. He was musically on-point and jovial in his dance-moves of choice. Never would I ever imagine dancing so candidly with North Korean locals, and that it would be so fun! While this one man alone whom I was dancing with was not representative of the hardship around the rest of the country, I was awed to even find just one man like him, who was cheered by so much contentment. I think back to when/where I have every enjoyed so much as a carefree dance in a park with a total stranger in North America or China.
Do you have any plans to go back?
I would love to go back and volunteer at some of the orphanages around Nampur areas bordering South Korea, where most of the political tension and emotional turmoil had been. Though I am not sure if North Korea would ever allow me in now that I have so forthrightly shared what I saw!
In the meantime, I really hope that some of what I saw in Pyongyang was genuine, and that ultimately North Korea is moving on to more openness in its own interpretation of the word. In a country built all upon the ideals of two individuals and what they embody —Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il — I too hope the Koreans can move past the rhetoric of the Korean War, and relish on the assets that their people embody day-to-day life, simplicity, arts, and grace.
View Loong's instagram pictures from the marathon: @jloong
Follow Nilo Tabrizy on Twitter: @NTabrizy
Image via Flickr