Blog: Impressions from the Hermit Kingdom

Being able to take part in Pyongyang Marathon, to interact with the crowds lining the streets, was a unique privilege.

    The North Korean government controls many aspects of the country's culture [AP]
    The North Korean government controls many aspects of the country's culture [AP]

    Arriving in the North Korean capital is like returning to a pre-industrialised era, where there is almost no light pollution and where the only sound at night comes from the 24/7 dredging of the Taedong River.

    And where, even in the comparatively mild spring cold, we occasionally caught glimpses of groups of military personnel huddled around piles of burning wood, seeking warmth.

    I was later told that they are in Pyongyang as extra labour, living in temporary accommodation while they help with a wave of construction projects.

    Regular visitors to DPRK say there is more traffic on the streets than ever before. Traffic jams are not far off.

    The longevity of the "traffic ladies" - the elite female cops who stand immaculately dressed in the middle of busy intersections directing traffic - is under threat.

    Traffic lights are more common than a decade ago, and we saw a couple of examples of road rage as pedestrians and drivers crossed paths.

    We were only ever shown how the elite live: a health spa, bowling alley, various microbreweries, and a supermarket stocked with imported items at inflated prices.

    Nobody would be drawn on anything other than the positive about the regime, and how they are supported from cradle to grave.

    'I feel emotion'

    At a giant bronze statue of the founding father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, I asked our guide how she felt.

    "I feel emotion," she said. She would not elaborate.

    Somehow this society is holding together and shows no obvious sign of slowly opening up.

    They still open and close to the outside world at whim - evident in the back and forth on whether foreigners would be allowed into the country for this year's Pyongyang Marathon.

    We were finally given the green light to travel only a couple of weeks prior to the race.

    One of our guides told us that they are not interested in the tourist dollar, and so have no strategic approach to handling tourism.

    One word that kept coming up was "unpredictability". The unpredictability of the regime challenges even seasoned Korea watchers. But it is also a frustration for one-time visitors.

    Tourism schedules have to remain flexible.

    City-centre roads suddenly close because someone important is on the move, meaning we have to ditch a planned visit to a museum and instead embark on a 90-minute loop of the Pyongyang suburbs.

    But the unpredictability also brought its benefits.

    We stumbled upon a street-corner rehearsal for celebrations to mark the birth of Kim Il-sung, and were able to spend time interacting with the troupe of dancers.

    No automatons

    The people are not automatons, and you see that close up: our guide would say things like "this morning we're going on yet another bloody city tour ...", and - more inexplicably - told jokes on the bus about Bill Clinton and George W Bush, as well as about Korean society - to cheers and applause.

    I can only speak of Pyongyang [and only really the parts of the city we were taken to], but it is not a crazy theme-park world. People really do live here: they go to work, queue for trams - sometimes hundreds deep - and, apparently, get by.

    And what of the marathon itself?

    Being able to run around the streets of Pyongyang without a guide, to interact with the crowds lining the streets, to shake their hands, high-five them or just exchange smiles and laughter was a unique privilege.

    To warm up on the track inside the capacity-crowd Kim Il-sung Stadium as tens of thousands cheered on the foreign runners was surreal.

    One moment lingers in my mind: As my energy flagged towards the end of the race, a military officer standing along the route stepped forward, offered me a bottle of water, said something which I took to mean "Do not give up", smiled and shook my hand.

    We spent only a few seconds together, but I will remember the brief encounter forever.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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