Portfolio: Marathoners are in the running to visit N. Korea


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TOKYO — Runners of the world, unite!

For the first time ever, North Korea is opening up the streets of its capital to runner-tourists for the annual Pyongyang marathon, undoubtedly one of the most exotic feathers in any runner's cap.

Tourism companies say they were inundated by requests to sign up for Sunday's event, which this year will include amateur runners from around the world. The race includes a full marathon -- with a handful of world-class, invitation-only athletes -- a half marathon and a 10-kilometer run.

The opening of the race to recreational runners is in keeping with the North's ongoing, but sometimes sporadic, effort to earn cash revenue by boosting tourism, usually with well-orchestrated group tours to major arts performances or attractions the North wants to show off.

Earlier this year, North Korea's government announced a plan to create special trade and tourism zones across the country and unveiled its first luxury ski resort, aimed largely at luring ski enthusiasts from abroad. Under the watch of young leader Kim Jong Un, the North has also been giving sports in general a higher profile. Simple recreational sports facilities, such as outdoor basketball courts and roller skating rinks, have been popping up lately in Pyongyang and some other cities.

Much of North Korea remains off-limits to foreigners, but Pyongyang, with its broad avenues and ubiquitous monuments, is a showcase city and more accessible than other places in the secretive and isolated country.

"I think a lot of the attraction is the 'Pyongyang' part rather than the 'marathon' part," said Simon Cockerell, a Beijing-based agent for the Koryo Tours travel agency. "A lot of the people going along to take part are interested in simply doing something a bit unusual, something that would cause a bit of cognitive dissonance in friends of theirs when they tell them they ran a marathon in North Korea."

Mr. Cockerell said nearly 200 foreigners signed up for the event, which coincides with Tuesday's birthday of North Korea's first leader, Kim Il Sung.



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