Amid Tensions, North Korea Prepares For Annual Marathon

Ahead of April 15 holiday, source says "everything is as normal" in Pyongyang
April 12th, 2013

BEIJING – North Korea is preparing for the 26th annual Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, scheduled to take place this Sunday in the capital city of Pyongyang.

Despite warnings of pre-emptive nuclear strikes and imminent war, ahead of the marathon state TV showed a calm scene in Pyongyang yesterday, with North Koreans holding open air dances in preparation for their April 15 national holiday.

Held every year on the streets of North Korea’s capital city, the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon will take place this Sunday as part of a broader multiple-day sports tournament held to commemorate the April 15 birthday of North Korea’s founding leader, Kim Il Sung.

This year Reuters reported that runners from Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ethiopia will be joining over 600 North Koreans at the April 14 race, which is recognized by the International Association of Athletics Federations as a Bronze level marathon.

Despite Taiwan warning its nationals to delay business and holiday trips to South Korea due to escalating tensions, a Taipei based sports authority today confirmed that a delegation of Taiwanese runners had left for North Korea to take part in Sunday’s race, having received safety guarantees from Pyongyang.

Simon Cockerell, the General Manager of North Korea tour specialists Koryo Tours, told NK NEWS that unlike many other international marathons, the annual Pyongyang event is not open to applications from amateur runners.

“Application is made through the sports committee in Pyongyang, who are notoriously bad at answering emails. Usually I think they approach sports federations in countries they have contact with to ask them to send runners…The qualifying time is very fast indeed, something like 2:40 for men.”

Ukraine’s Oleksandr Matviychuk won the marathon last year in a nail-biting turn of events which saw him clock in the precise same time as North Korean runner, Pak Song Chol. With both crossing the finish line at a time of 2:12:54, the North Korean hosts gave the visiting Ukrainian any benefit of the doubt in a rare marathon photo-finish.

Photo Finish

Oleksandr Matviychuk and Pak Song Cho race to finish line in 2012 Marathon, clocking in precisely the same finish time

This year, China-based tour company Young Pioneer Tours is sending a group of tourists in to North Korea specifically to watch the 2013 Pyongyang Marathon.

An online itinerary promotion explains, “Guests will watch the opening ceremony, start of the race, as well as the end all from the iconic Arch of Triumph, with street walking and a visit to the public park in between.”

Amid rising inter-Korean tensions, North Korea told foreign embassies based in Pyongyang last week that it would no longer be able to guarantee their security after April 10. Despite the advisory, foreigners both working and visiting the North Korean capital have reported the situation to be calm and relaxed in recent days.

In 2005, 150 South Koreans went to Pyongyang to take part in the first ever inter-Korean marathon. Held at a time when relations were much more cordial between the two countries, the marathon saw participants run from Pyongyang to the coastal city of Nampo.

Inter-Korean relations are at a low point following weeks of recriminations between Seoul and Pyongyang.  Relations spiraled out of control following UN condemnation of North Korea’s third nuclear test in February.

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About the Author

Chad O'Carroll

Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.