Vancouver marathoner gets rare look inside North Korea
Published Friday, April 25, 2014 9:58AM PDT
Last Updated Friday, April 25, 2014 10:01AM PDT
A Vancouver runner has just gotten a rare tour inside the reclusive nation of North Korea, and compares the country to a “time-warped China.”
Jen Loong, 25, just took part in the annual Mangyondgae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang on April 13.
The 42-kilometre race has been taking place for three decades, but this year was the first time the marathon was opened to amateur foreign runners.
“It was a once in a lifetime experience truly,” Loong told CTV Vancouver in a phone interview from Shanghai, China.
Besides running, the Vancouver native danced with locals and -- despite tight security -- was able to capture it all in pictures and video on her Instagram account.
The young woman, who lives in China, does at least three international races annually. She says the entire country of North Korea appears stuck in a time capsule.
"I think it's literally China, probably in the 1950s…in terms of how people dressed and how they acted, how they went about the city, how the city looked like,” she told CTV News Channel.
Loong said at every turn runners were under police and military watch, but she said it was friendlier than she first thought.
University of B.C. Asian studies professor Don Baker doubts how real the sights and sounds Loong experienced actually were.
Baker says the runners were likely treated to a “Disneyland” picture of the country, and kept away from the poverty and plight suffered by most of the nation.
"Pyongyang is the showplace for North Korea,” he told CTV News. “There’s still starvation in the countryside, but Pyongyang people are comfortable, they live in modern buildings, so they want the world to see Pyongyang."
Loong and the other marathoners were treated to a parade and other celebrations. This is an important time of year for North Korea, as April 15 marks the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the grandfather of the current leader.
“This is like their Christmas and Easter combined,” said Baker.
Allowing more foreigners into the country is seen as some as a PR stunt by current leader Kim Jong Un to make the nation seem friendly and inviting while he continues to flex his military muscles. But as a nation so isolated, it is a step towards re-connecting with the rest of the world.
"To see foreigners running through their streets may help break down that fear they have of people who don't look Korean,” said Baker.
Loong's photos of her trip can be seen on her Instagram account.