How North Korea’s annual marathon became a big draw for adventure-seeking Americans

Jeffrey Donenfeld’s friends questioned his sanity when he told them he was traveling to North Korea to run a marathon.

“They were like, ‘You’re crazy. Why would you ever go there?’ “

John Kivel’s family was only a bit more understanding when he revealed he, too, had signed up to race in Pyongyang.

“They said, ‘That’s stupid, but it doesn’t surprise me you would do that.’ “

Rebecca High also received a few disapproving looks when she confessed her next vacation destination was enemy territory for Americans.

“A lot of people were concerned about my safety. They were like, ‘Go to Greece or somewhere like that.'”

Since North Korea first opened the Pyongyang Marathon to amateur runners from other countries four years ago, adventure seekers from around the world have sacrificed basic freedoms and brushed off safety concerns to participate each April. Among the roughly 4,000 foreign runners have been hundreds of Americans of all ages and backgrounds, from a 79-year-old retired teacher from Washington, to a 33-year-old cable TV technician from Wyoming, to a 43-year-old finance professor from Florida.

An appetite for unconventional travel experiences and a deep curiosity about North Korea typically have attracted American runners. They’re drawn by the chance to complete a grueling test of endurance while also challenging their perceptions of a country best known for its survive-at-all-costs regime, nuclear antagonism and widespread human rights abuses.

“I never considered myself a runner,” said High, a Los Angeles resident. “I would never have been like, ‘Oh, a marathon in Mexico. I’ll go.’ It was definitely North Korea that intrigued me. It was a chance to do this extreme thing in an extreme land and to experience this weird, closed-off, vilified country in an unusual way.”

To most Americans who have participated in the Pyongyang Marathon, the race-day atmosphere feels festive yet rehearsed.

When runners enter 50,000-seat Kim Il-sung Stadium to begin the race, they’re typically greeted by loud, unusually persistent applause from a capacity crowd clad mostly in suits and ties or dresses and heels. Hardly anyone in the stands leaves until all the runners cross the finish line and the medal ceremony is complete.

“You just know they’re asked to be there,” said Kivel, a Boston native who now works in Shanghai as a pharmaceutical rep. “It doesn’t seem as natural as what we’re used to. People aren’t chowing down popcorn and soda. They’re just sitting there.”

The ambiance seems to grow a bit more spontaneous in the middle of the race as runners weave through the streets of Pyongyang. Residents routinely offer a seemingly natural smile or wave from their apartment balconies and groups of schoolchildren gather alongside the course to high-five runners or shout words of encouragement.

Some argue that little by little those interactions help melt the distrust of foreigners prevalent in North Korea. Others insist tourism in North Korea is doing far more harm than good. It has long been a tricky dilemma for American travelers until last month when the U.S. government took the decision out of their hands.

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The Pyongyang Marathon begins and ends inside Kim Il Sung Stadium. (Courtesy John Kivel)

On July 21, the U.S. State Department announced it is banning American citizens from traveling to North Korea, citing the risk of arrest and imprisonment by the country’s authoritarian regime. The decision came just over a month after the death of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student arrested on Jan. 1, 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp for stealing a propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel.

In what it astonishingly later described as a “humanitarian gesture,” North Korea handed Warmbier over to the U.S. in a vegetative state on June 13, claiming his condition was a result not of torture but the combination of food-borne botulism and sleeping pills. Warmbier died six days later without emerging from his coma and American doctors found evidence of extensive brain damage caused by the deprivation of oxygen.

By outlawing travel to North Korea, the U.S. has reinvigorated an old debate: Do the risks of tourism in North Korea outweigh the rewards?

Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, hopes Warmbier’s death persuades adventure seekers worldwide to reconsider visiting the country. In addition to safety concerns for travelers, Scarlatoiu questioned the ethics of visiting North Korea when tourism enables the Kim regime to funnel hard currency to areas critical to its survival.

“The hard currency earned through tourism might go to the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles or to keeping the elites happy through the purchase of luxury goods,” Scarlatoiu said. “The tour guides and hotel workers aren’t paid in Euros or U.S. dollars or Chinese Yuan. They’re paid in worthless North Korean currency, which the North Korean government can print as it wishes.”

Advocates of tourism in North Korea are quick to counter that an isolationist policy only fosters further tension and mistrust.

When visitors arrive from abroad, they’re often reminded that North Korean people are as human as anyone else. Positive interactions with foreign tourists can also provide North Koreans with scraps of information about life abroad while combatting the villainous image of outsiders typically presented in the Kim regime’s propaganda.

“Our image of North Koreans tends to be very one-dimensional, but it’s nuanced compared to their image of us,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which specializes in organizing trips to North Korea. “Their media portrays foreigners as universally up to no good and worthy of suspicion if not completely evil. To counteract that narrative even in a small way is a positive step. I’m not saying it’s a magic bullet that will suddenly change society, but hopefully it’s a drop in the bucket that accumulates over time.”

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Children line the streets of Pyongyang to cheer on the marathon runners. (Courtesy Kathy Whitmer)

A huge reason it’s difficult for foreign visitors to alter perceptions is because the North Korean government wants it that way. The Kim regime forces tourists to follow a rigid set of rules that stifle cross-cultural learning and limit meaningful interactions with North Korean citizens.

Foreigners can only enter North Korea as part of tightly controlled, propaganda-heavy tour groups that highlight sites the regime wants outsiders to see. Tourists must stay with their government-appointed guides at all times and are forbidden from venturing off on their own for any reason, no matter how innocuous.

When Nevada residents Fred and Deb Zalokar flew to North Korea to compete in the Pyongyang Marathon three years ago, they tried to find somewhere to go for a run in preparation for the race. What they quickly learned was that North Korea was not exactly conducive to morning jogs.

Anytime they weren’t with their tour group, the Zalokars were confined to a 47-story hotel located on a small island in the middle of Pyongyang’s biggest river. It was basically Alcatraz with a revolving restaurant, bowling alley and casino, an opulent yet security camera-laden fortress that offered guests every luxury besides the freedom to leave as they pleased.

“If we wanted to run, we’d have had to run in circles around a very small hotel parking lot,” Deb Zalokar said. “The hotel was on an island and they’re always watching you. You can’t leave without your tour guides.”

Tour operators provide travelers with a long list of other restrictions before they arrive, the most important of which pertain to the spread of information that the North Korean regime deems harmful or off message.

Anything remotely critical of the North Korean government is forbidden, as is any pornographic or religious content and music, film and literature from South Korea. It’s not just hard copies, either. Customs officials will inspect laptops, tablets, cameras and other electronic devices as soon as tourists arrive in North Korea, sometimes even scouring internet browsing history in search of banned content.

The rest of the constraints placed on tourists are designed to further legitimize the Kim regime in the eyes of North Korean citizens.

Visitors must show reverence for past and present North Korean leaders, whether by laying bouquets at the feet of statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il or theatrically bowing to them when required.

When photographing a statue of a North Korean leader, tourists are required to take great care to include the entire body from head to toe. They’re also forbidden from taking pictures of scenes of poverty, construction or military sites or North Korean citizens who haven’t given permission.

“My biggest issue was sneaking photos,” Kivel said. “There were so many photos that I took from my hip or I just very quickly snapped. Once in awhile, the guides would catch you. They would walk over, make you show them the photo and delete it.”

For other travelers from the United States, following the rules is toughest when being bombarded with anti-American sentiment while touring the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang. They must stay silent or risk being detained when guides modify the history of the Korean War to paint the Americans as villains and revel in the 1968 capture of the USS Pueblo, a lightly armed intelligence ship now on display at the museum.

“Basically, you just have to sit there with your mouth shut and take it, which is tough for somebody who is an American and loves their country,” Deb Zalokar said. “By the end of the week, you’re like, ‘I better get out of here soon because I might say something I’ll regret.’ ”

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American runners take brief moments to connect with the citizens of Pyongyang. (Courtesy Kathy Whitmer)

Strict rules for visitors, the risk of arrest and the consequences of prosecution have kept North Korea isolated for decades, but the Kim regime has recently placed more value on turning parts of the country into a destination for tourists. Eager to bring in hard currency and attract foreign investors, North Korea unveiled a luxury ski resort in 2013, opened the marathon to foreigners in 2014 and last year began allowing tour operators to host surf trips along the coast.

A huge reason the marathon has been North Korea’s top draw is the rare independence it offers. For a few short hours, runners get to escape their tour buses, ditch their guides and see Pyongyang in a different way.

“My favorite moment of the trip, hands down, was when I came up to a big group cheering on the sidewalk,” said Megan Lacina, an American now working for a non-profit in Cambodia. “I contemplated not going over thinking it would slow me down a lot, but I couldn’t resist. I pulled out my phone and filmed while I ran along the sidewalk high-fiving every single person, perhaps 50 men, women and children all cheering me on.”

There weren’t too many chances for Lacina to interact with North Korean citizens outside the marathon, but she seized the few opportunities she got.

When she met a North Korean college student who dreamed of one day traveling overseas, she patiently answered his questions about life in the United States. She and other members of her tour group also bonded with one of their North Korean guides, singing karaoke and downing shots of Soju the night of the race. There was even a moment when Lacina boarded a crowded subway with her tour group and several North Koreans insisted with a smile that she take one of their seats.

Americans who have enjoyed similar experiences in North Korea are disappointed their countrymen and women won’t have the chance to do the same in the near future. They understand visiting North Korea is too risky for many Americans, yet they wish the U.S. government would allow citizens to make an educated decision instead of taking the choice out of their hands.

Even though the two countries remain opposed culturally and politically, Americans who have visited North Korea can often point to moments that reminded them the people aren’t so different.

For Rebecca High, it was a few minutes with a government-appointed guide who assured her not all North Koreans hate Americans.

For John Kivel, it was being peppered with questions by a gregarious throng of kids he encountered along the marathon course.

For Jeffrey Donenfeld, it was joining in a soccer game some North Korean boys were playing outside a Pyongyang restaurant.

“Anywhere you travel, you realize people are people,” Donenfeld said. “It was delightful to realize that was the same in North Korea.”

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