Now the country is promoting an international event, inviting foreigners to run across the capital Pyongyang on April 10.
This is only the third year that DPRK has allowed foreign nationals to participate in the marathon. Last year, though it initially banned foreigners from running the marathon because of the Ebola scare, they later relaxed the ban.
Chas Pope, who ran the Pyongyang Marathon last year, described it as a “fascinating experience.”
For Pope, who works at Arup — a British engineering and design consultant firm in Beijing — the marathon was also an opportunity to see the country through a different lens.
“When you go to North Korea, you’re always with a guide,” Pope said. “But this was a chance to see the city – and run – on your own across the capital.”
Comparing this to his first visit in 2012, he said there was a “slight change” in the capital.
“A lot of people were taking photos on their mobile phones as we ran,” he said, describing the marathon scene and referring to a growing number of cellphone users in the country.
In a bid to boost its economy that has been hit hard by international sanctions, DPRK has established 20 special economic zones allowing foreign firms to invest. Companies like Egypt’s Orascom Telecom Media and Technology Holding, one of the largest investors in the country, has opened up communication links to 3 million people. In late December, DPRK also opened a new tourism zone across the Chinese border in Sinuiju, targeting more tourists from the mainland.
Currently, about 100,000 tourists visit the country. However, it has set a target to welcome one million visitors by 2017 and wants to double that figure by 2020.
DPRK’s tourism is dominated by Chinese tourists. However, the marathons are more popular with non-Chinese, said Simon Cockerell, a general manager of Koryo Tours that has been organizing trips to the country since 1993.
“It’s a kind of place which is a great paradox,” Cockerell said. “Everyone knows so much about it and yet so little. So if you want to scratch the surface, understand the country, taking this trip is perfect, whether you run or not.”
As with all tours to DPRK, participants for the marathon also need to sign up through an authorized travel agency. China-based Koryo Tours, the marathon’s official travel partner, is offering tour packages starting from 900 euros (983 US dollars). Other agencies as Young Pioneer Tours and Uri Tours are also providing marathon packages.
Pyongyang Marathon started as a men’s marathon in 1981 to mark the 69th birthday of Kim Il Sung, the country’s first leader after its formation and grandfather to current leader Kim Jong Un. He allowed women to participate in the marathon in 1984. Also known as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, it opened to foreigners in 2014 and now participants can run full, half and a 10 kilometer marathon along the 10 kilometer loop of the city.
Cockerell from Koryo Tours said about 1,000 foreigners — up from 200 and 600 in the last two years — are expected to run in Pyongyang this year.
Cameron Petie, a 37-year-old Australian teacher in Beijing, is one of them.
A sports and travel enthusiast, Petie said the marathon will provide a “unique opportunity” to combine two of his passions.
“North Korea was on my radar for a while,” Petie, who has ran six other marathons, said. “The marathon gave me an extra boost to travel.”
And for past runners like Pope, Pyongyang has been an important milestone in their travel and marathon history.
He remembers the enthusiastic bystanders cheering, running through Pyongyang’s landmarks and quiet streets – as compared to Beijing – and being greeted by a gigantic roar as he entered the Kim Il Sung stadium where the race begins and ends.
“I thought 50,000 people were cheering for me,” Pope said. “But they were waiting for the football game to begin after the match. I also got my personal best time in Pyongyang.”