Running Scared

With Marxism again popular among some, could North Korea soon be in vogue?

North Koreans rehearse an event in praise of the Leader (JP Floru)

With Marxism again popular among some, North Korea may soon be in vogue too. Three London friends asked me to run the Pyongyang marathon. By day two I decided to write a book about it.

The North Koreans pre-vet you before you may book your flight. You are warned not to be “annoying”. In my case the vetting wasn’t very efficient as I lied I was a teacher and was let in. The travel agency puts you through a three-hour “be very scared” session. Every so often, North Korea sentences a tourist to 20 years’ hard labour, so foreign visitors are scared, and self-censor while there. We were told that we should not talk with locals as “they might be hostile, and attack you”. (Nothing was further from the truth: if they showed any reaction it was one of curiosity and shy smiles.)

Your minders constantly remind you of all that is forbidden. Is there a spy among the travel group? Are there mikes and cameras in your hotel room? A friend’s American roommate went straight for the radio set, unfastened the front panel, and pointed at a tiny camera.

The marathon started and ended at the Rungrado sports stadium, the largest in the world. Snakes of thousands of citizens walked to the stadium, strictly guided by soldiers. Nobody arrived by car: private cars are what private planes are in the West. One could see on many bored faces that people had not come out of their free will. The stadium has to be filled: the regime’s prestige is at stake!

The 600 participating foreigners were proclaimed to be sympathisers of the Great Leader, Kim Jong-un. Off we went, with a cacophony of brass bands playing different tunes at the same time. On the streets the locals high-fived the runners with great enthusiasm. Senior officers looked on too, and scowled.

On the train from Pyongyang to Beijing we were all very tense. We hid memory cards of “illegal” photographs behind seats and in bread rolls. Not much was said. When we finally crossed the border river after North Korean border guards had gone through our phones, cameras and luggage for three hours, bottles of sparkling wine were uncorked and a near-party ensued. Escaping from Communist North Korea into Communist China felt like a liberation.

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