Vancouver runner Jen Loong enters a massive stadium in North Korea filled with the synchronized applause of more than 50,000 people in the stands. It’s the annual Pyongyang marathon, and it’s the first time foreign amateur runners have been allowed to participate. She and the other foreign runners jog a lap around the track before stopping in front of a table of top government officials.
“It felt like The Hunger Games,” Ms. Loong, 25, said. “When you walk through the stadium, and you walk through different sections of the bleachers, some of the sections are just so blatantly well-dressed and colourful; some of the sections you see just how tired and exhausted [they are]. But they’re all there, clapping in unison, smiling and waving at you like you’re the oddest thing they’ve ever seen.”
The Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon has been held for the past 27 years and typically featured only North Korean and elite foreign athletes. This year, 225 foreign amateurs competed.
Organizers of the event told the Associated Press they decided to allow recreational runners this year because they wanted a grander race as part of the week-long series of festivities celebrating the birthday of Kim Il-sung, the nation’s founder, on April 15.
Ms. Loong stayed in North Korea for a week after the race on April 13, travelling with the tour group that brought her and other runners to the marathon.
Since returning to Shanghai, she has been posting the photographs and videos she took from her trip to her Instagram account (instagram.com/jloong). The images, which offer a candid look at life in the reclusive country, have garnered a lot of attention on social media.
Ms. Loong has posted pictures of adults and children dancing in the streets of Pyongyang, and images of thousands of university students dancing with each other and singing the national anthem – all in celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday, the biggest holiday of the year.
“I just wanted to highlight that North Koreans are just like any other country, they have a happy, joyful side as well,” Ms. Loong said.
Ms. Loong said taking photographs of people wasn’t an issue if they got permission, and said Pyongyang is set up to cater for tourists. In the rural towns outside of the capital, however, the military presence was a lot higher.
When she visited Sariwon, a rural town close to the border of South Korea, the group was accompanied by several soldiers who ensured group members did not interact too closely with the locals.
It was in Sariwon that, after giving candy to a group of children, she saw a soldier chase the kids away by waving his gun and throwing rocks at them.
“That was real North Korea, and I think that was what I had prepared to see. The guide made it really clear that this country, at the end of the day, is still closed off. So what we’re shown in Pyongyang is hopefully the future of where the country is going.”
Ms. Loong said she appreciated the fact that the tour guides made the effort to show the group all facets of the isolated nation. It was the guides who encouraged Ms. Loong and the other tourists to share their experiences with friends and family back home.
“There are always two sides to the coin and that’s all I want to share, and I want to continue to share. I hope that will get more people at least curious about North Korea, and then potentially making a trip and making their own judgments around what I saw and what they see themselves,” Ms. Loong said.