I don’t believe what I just saw

I don’t believe what I just saw

Part I

The organizers changed the venue and the course ten days before the marathon. Seemed like a strange move so close to the race. In fact, the decision reeked of incompetence. But, I had a feeling they’d pull it off. And while the email left me scratching my head, I was ultimately thrilled — the new venue is three times bigger.

The Rungrado 1st of May stadium sits on the Taedong river in Pyongyang, North Korea. It is the world’s largest open air stadium with a seating capacity of 150,000 – 40% bigger than number two on the list, the University of Michigan’s Big House. It’s massive. The stadium hosts various sporting events, most notably the Arirang Games, and, for the first time this past Sunday, The Mangyongdae Prize Marathon. A setting this grand is rare, usually reserved for the likes of the Olympics or the Super Bowl (2016 attendance: 71,000).

Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea.

It didn’t make sense. What is the world’s largest stadium doing in North Korea? And why were 60,000 North Koreans sitting in it by 8am on a Sunday? To watch 1,500 mostly amateur runners check a box on their bucket list?

But that, as I learned, is North Korea. Sense-making is not on the agenda.

I first heard about the Pyongyang Marathon a year ago. The New York Times published a recap essay of the 2015 race. The appeal was instant: run through the capital city of the world’s most reclusive country + start and finish in a packed-to-capacity 50,000 person stadium.

The pictures of runners in the stadium and high-fiving locals in the streets only sweetened the deal. A few days later, as if I hit a snooze button, a friend’s email appeared in my inbox. Subject: Pyongyang Marathon 2016 Registration Now Open! Body: LET’S DO THIS. It was a sign. My mind was made up.

I booked the trip in August 2015, paid the balance of my bill in November and that was the last I thought about North Korea for months. And then, in January 2016, Otto Warmbier happened.

Americans, this one anyway, go through stages of learning about North Korea:

  1. Headline reader You probably can’t identify Korea out on a map. You’ve watched Team America, heard about The Interview/Sony hack, come across the occasional Facebook post and think 50% of Americans who visit North Korea get detained and wind up in prison camps. Why pay attention anyway? Korea’s halfway around the world. Korea is halfway around the world, right?
  2. Vice video watcher The secrecy of North Korea intrigues you and you heard Dennis Rodman visited?! As you watch, you can’t believe someone smuggled a camera into the country and there’s a 50–50 shot Shane Smith could get detained at any time. You still don’t know Korea is a peninsula. Maybe you finish the 2nd Vice Video YouTube aut0-started.
  3. I live in South Korea and, wow, North Korea sure does launch a lot of missiles. Your curiosity increases because it has to. You live so close. You pay more attention to the news and you want to know what normal is. Residents and expats who have been here for years reassure you the threats and military exercises have been going on forever and there’s nothing to worry about. Sure. You’re probably aware Korea is a peninsula.
  4. I’m going to North Korea You’ve become used to the rhetoric. North Korea fires a missile. South Korea blasts k-pop across the DMZ. Just another Tuesday. You set up a North Korea Google Alert and research Kim Jong Un. He went to school in Switzerland? And likes Cristal? Korea is definitely a peninsula.
  5. An American just got a 15 year sentence for attempting to steal a poster, wtf! If you weren’t seriously interested in North Korea before, you are now. You wake up every morning and Google North Korea then hit the News filter to see what’s happened since you fell asleep. You check again at lunch. And dinner. You research every American detainee in the last five years and consult the opinion of everyone in your life you respect and some you don’t. No amount of information is enough. You Facebook message the local NPR correspondent and consult that guy you ran with once who’s gone back to school to study North Korea. He’s an expert. Right? Who cares about geographic land mass formations.

The Otto Warmbier situation created a lot of headlines and influenced my decision in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Propoganda works both ways. Everyone I spoke to, with very few enlightened exceptions, told me not to go. They usually justified this advice by citing the US State Department’s travel warning to the DPRK.

Have you read the US State Department’s warning? All of it? I have. It’s 1,018 words long. The first 253 are kind of scary and constitute what I’d call a stern warning. The other 765 read more like a TripAdvisor recommendation. The US State Department suggests travelers to the DPRK email with details of their trip the US Embassy in Beijing and the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang. I did both on March 26th. Sweden replied three days later. Thanks, Torkel. The US replied while I was on the trip:

Thank you for the information. Please be aware that the U.S. government strongly advises against travel to the DPRK.

As I pored through article after article, irrationality faded. I’ll hold off on calling these facts, but I’m confident:

  • over 1,000 Americans visit North Korea each year
  • twelve have been detained since 2009
  • almost all the detainees have done things they should have known not to do: illegally cross the border, leave bibles for North Koreans to find, rip up the DPRK tourist visa (apparently Matthew Miller wanted to get detained), steal.
  • if you do something you should not, the penalty will not fit the crime
  • convicted detainees were released before serving their full sentence
  • the DPRK needs tourist dollars and is interested in maintaining a tourist-friendly image
  • April is tourist season and the marathon is its biggest event
  • If you are not stupid, you’ll be fine

I finished the half-marathon at 11 on Sunday morning. Running freely through the streets of North Korea’s capital city was the most normal thing I did that weekend. Looking at the faces of the North Korean spectators lining the streets I wondered what they wondered. Did they know who came out to see who?

Part II

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