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North Korea opens up marathon


Runners pass the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang in last year's Mangyongdae Prize Marathon (AP)

Runners pass the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang in last year's Mangyongdae Prize Marathon (AP)

Runners pass the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang in last year's Mangyongdae Prize Marathon (AP)

North Korea is opening the streets of its capital to tourist runners for the annual Pyongyang marathon.

Tourism companies say they are getting inundated by requests to sign up for the April 13 event, which this year will include amateur runners from around the world. T

he race includes a full marathon - with a handful of world-class, invitation-only athletes - a half marathon and a 10km run.

The opening of the race to recreational runners is in keeping with the North's continuing, but sometimes sporadic, effort to earn cash revenue by boosting tourism, usually with well-orchestrated group tours to major arts performances or attractions the North wants to show off.

Earlier this year, the government announced a plan to create special trade and tourism zones across the country and unveiled its first luxury ski resort, aimed largely at luring snow sports enthusiasts from abroad.

Under the watch of young leader Kim Jong Un, the North has also been giving sports in general a higher profile. Simple recreational sports facilities, such as outdoor basketball courts and roller skating rinks, have been popping up in Pyongyang and some other cities.

Much of North Korea remains off-limits to foreigners, but Pyongyang, with its broad avenues and ubiquitous monuments, is a showcase city and more accessible than other places in the secretive and isolated country.

Known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race is sanctioned as a bronze label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and has been held annually for 27 years.

The generally flat, full-marathon course entails four loops around the centre of the city of 2.5 million.

The race starts at the 70,000-seat Kim Il Sung Stadium and moves on past the Monument to Chinese Soldiers to the Kim Il Sung University area. After that, the runners cross a bridge over the Taedong River to the east side of the city and wind their way along the river bank to the stadium.

Spectators back in the stadium will be treated to football games, volleyball and martial arts exhibitions while they wait for the runners to return.

Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based agent for the Koryo Tours travel agency, said: "I think a lot of the attraction is the Pyongyang part rather than the marathon part.

"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."

Mr Cockerell said nearly 200 foreigners have signed up for the event, which coincides with commemorations of the April 15 birthday of North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung. That is an unusually large number, though the North's famous mass games are also often a big draw.

As a practical matter, aspiring runners had to apply through agencies familiar with the North Korean bureaucracy to get the proper visas. Mr Cockerell said most are joining packaged group tours to see the sights while they are in Pyongyang.

In the past, the main race has been restricted to a select group of elite runners. Recreational jogging isn't a part of ordinary North Korean life, but past events have included races for local students and junior runners.

Though many national teams are reluctant to come to North Korea for political reasons, times in the elite part of the race have been up to the international standards. Last year's marathon was won by Ethiopia's Ketema Nigusse in 2:13:04. North Korea's own Kim Mi Gyong won the women's title for the second straight year, with a personal best of 2:26:32.

The only requirement for marathon runners is that they finish in four hours; those who do not will be escorted back to the stadium. In 1995, South Korean runners were allowed to participate in a road race in the North, but that was a one-off, Koreans-only event. Because of South Korea's travel restrictions to the North, participation from south of the border this time is unlikely.