Fundraising for The Kaleidoscope Trust at the Pyongyang Marathon by Will Parry
I’ve been a competitive runner for most of my life, and am a member of London Frontrunners, the capital’s LGBT running team. On April 10th I – along with two friends from Frontrunners - competed in what has to rank as one of the world’s strangest races: the Pyongyang marathon and half marathon in North Korea (DPRK). I ran the half marathon with one of my friends, whilst the other ran the full marathon.
Though the race began in 1981, it’s only been open to amateurs for three years. My reasons for running were less to do with the race itself than the opportunity it offered to visit North Korea, a country that’s fascinated me for many years. Independent travel is impossible, and the only way to gain access is via an organised tour.
I race frequently, and rarely try the patience of my friends by asking for sponsorship. However, I decided to make an exception for the Pyongyang Half Marathon and fundraise for the Kaleidoscope Trust. I’ve supported the Trust for several years, and see its international work as the most important LGBT struggle that we currently face. The legal and social changes that have taken place around LGBT rights over the last two decades in Europe and the US have been remarkable. Whilst we still have plenty of work to do at home, it’s now crucial for us to use our relatively fortunate position to support the struggle for acceptance in countries where prejudice is on the rise, and where criminal penalties for simply being LGBT are on the rise.
Though defectors and human rights activists differ in their opinions on the ethics of tourism, travel to North Korea is undoubtedly a moral grey area, and fundraising for the Kaleidoscope Trust was one way of ensuring the trip had a slightly lighter hue of grey than might otherwise be the case. I set myself the goal of raising £500, which, thanks to my generous friends and supporters, I achieved.
The four-day trip was preceded by a security briefing in the Beijing offices of our tour company. Some warnings were expected. If requested to delete photographs by our guides, don’t argue. Others were less so. Don’t fold the English language newspaper across the face of any member of the Kim family, and don’t crunch the paper up and bin it in a disrespectful way.
After forty-eight hours of hectic tourism - always escorted by two North Korean guides - it was race day. The marathon and half marathon began in the May Day Stadium, the world’s largest, with a capacity of 150,000 people. (Wembley seats 90,000.) The stadium itself was three quarters full, and the experience of emerging from the entrance tunnel into the vast space was overwhelming. It seemed unlikely that all the spectators were there voluntarily. Watching from the roof of the stadium were portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – portraits that were omnipresent in almost every space we entered, from subway carriages to university classrooms. Running kit had been carefully vetted, with no outsize logos or slogans permitted. And our guides politely but firmly reminded us that there should be no shouting or banner waving along the course.
Before leaving the UK, I’d read that western runners would start fifteen minutes behind Korean athletes to ensure there was no communication. That wasn’t true, nor did there seem to be any overt photography restrictions on the course – with one notable exception. One street was undergoing extensive reconstruction, and we were warned that any attempt to take photos was strictly prohibited. The reasons are unclear - perhaps they simply want photographs to reflect the country in the best possible light, perhaps they worry about construction standards – but it seems that building sites and cameras in North Korea are never allowed to mix.
The two-lap course (four for the marathon) attracted a crowd of curious Pyongyang citizens, some with their children. Unlike the locals who filled the stadium - and unlike the unsmiling soldiers and traffic police who marshalled the route - I had the distinct feeling that they were watching because they wanted to, not because of any official edict. They smiled and cheered – just like supporters in any race. Most of the Western runners that I saw did the same back (a few attempting high fives, to the general bafflement of the spectators.) They were small moments of friendly communication, but hopefully ones that went a tiny way to breaking down barriers.
I completed the half marathon in 1.29.45 – over two minutes off my best time, but one I was happy with given that I’d slowed several times to take photos. The next day I left by train to Beijing, a trip which offered fascinating glimpses of the country outside of Pyongyang.
North Korea certainly offers a different kind of marathon tourism, but the race is an intriguing glimpse into a closed society. Some expectations were confirmed, some were confounded, but I’m glad I ran, and very happy that I was able to use the opportunity to fundraise for the Kaleidoscope Trust.
For pictures of Will Parry's marathon go to our Kaleidoscope Trust Facebook album.