Two weeks ago North Korea opened its gates to 600 foreign runners who participated in the Pyongyang Marathon. One who took advantage of this rare window of opportunity was Israeli runner Dr. Guy Podoler. He was not just another casual tourist who sought an interesting place to run; rather, he is an expert on Korea at the University of Haifa’s Department of Asian Studies.
Podoler, 48, completed a bachelor’s degree in East Asian studies specializing in Japan, and for his master’s degree and his doctorate he focused on Korea. He is one of three Israelis with a doctorate connected to Korea, and the only one of them who ran the marathon in Pyongyang. This was his first visit to North Korea, after many trips to South Korea.
“All of my work had been on South Korea,” he relates. “I was familiar with the North and had learned about it, but I had never researched it because of the problem with accessibility and gathering data. The comparison between South and North Korea – seeing the people and how they live there, at least going by what they showed us – was truly fascinating. The social-political system is different, but ultimately they are Koreans. There’s a dissonance that’s a bit confusing and I wanted to resolve that tension. The food, the clothing, the language – all the cultural elements are Korean."
The marathon has been an annual event in North Korea for about 30 years. It is intended for professional runners only, who have shown impressive racing results, and is ranked at the bronze level by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Most of the participants over the years have been locals, with occasional competitive runners from Russia or Africa. Last year North Korea printed numbers for foreign amateur runners as well.
No casual tourist can just enter North Korea on a whim. All visits are conducted via travel agencies officially authorized to fly foreigners into the country. “I contacted two companies, I said I have an Israeli passport and asked it there would be any problem,” he relates. “Both companies told me that the North Koreans have no objection in principle to Israelis coming and that I could register.”
In October the Koreans informed all the travel agencies that entry to foreigners, including marathon runners, was prohibited because of the Ebola scare. Later the quarantine was lifted and then re-imposed, until three weeks before the marathon the agency informed Podoler that his visa had been approved. He flew alone to Beijing where, the day before the flight to Pyongyang, there was a meeting between travel agency representatives and those who were to set out on the journey.
“No one paid any particular attention to the fact that I am Israeli,” he stresses. “They gave instructions, explained that the tour is led by local guides and said not to do anything foolish because they are responsible for the group. They also said that the guides are very nice, that there wouldn’t be a feeling of surveillance and that we would return home with hundreds of pictures, many more than we thought. They asked us not to photograph military personnel and installations. Until 2013 it was forbidden to enter North Korea with a mobile phone, but now it is possible. Not that there is a network to connect to, but you can use it to take pictures and write things on it, so in any case they have opened up a little.”
The next day he flew to Pyongyang. “You land,” he says, “and its really ‘Wow!’ There are rumors about how they will mess up your things, but there was nothing dramatic. I think that entering the United States you feel more stressed when the immigration officials look at you, and you very quickly find yourself outside the terminal.
“There are tall buildings reminiscent of the 1960s in socialist Eastern Europe, lots of national flags, slogans and pictures of leaders. The streets are clean and very orderly, but there’s no glamor. It’s pretty gray and the architectural style is very practical. There are no shopping malls, brands, foreign food and clothing chains, advertising or consumer culture as we know it.”
The hotel was large, clean and very orderly, but also quite dated: old-style telephones, an archaic television and no mini-bar.
“Inside, it looks like the 1960s, with very basic things. There was plenty of food, Korean or Western. You don’t see many private cars but those you see are mostly Western luxury vehicles like Mercedes, which I assume belong to high government or military officials.”
The ability to communicate with the world outside North Korea was practically nil. “You could send e-mails out via the hotel, but it was very complicated and you weren’t even sure it will actually arrive,” he smiles.
The Korean guides were hospitable and spoke fluent English, but the entire program of the tour was dictated, under close supervision and with very little room for maneuver.
“You can’t say ‘I’m going and I’ll be back in half an hour.’ I was expecting something stricter, but the atmosphere on the personal level was pleasant. The guides are responsible for you; it’s obvious they are ensuring you won’t do things you aren’t supposed to, but there isn’t a sense that someone is following or threatening you.”
Dr. Guy Podoler, the first Israeli to participate in the Pyongyang marathon (Courtesy)
Podoler was also surprised by the interaction that between the visitors and the locals. That week the Koreans were celebrating the birthday of Kim Il-Sung, the leader who founded and controlled the state until his death, and they invited the foreigners to join the partying.
“There were more encounters than I had expected. They invited me to taste something from their barbecue or to join their dancing, all of this with smiles and openness. The guides took us for a ride on the subway and we sat with the locals and exchanged a few words with them. True, the guides were always walking among us and watching, and they were stressed because they were responsible for the group. It was hard to conduct long conversations, but it was a lot freer than I had thought. For the past 15 years they have been encouraging tourists because it brings in money and nevertheless helps improve the country’s’ image. They want us to see and contrary to what the American press shows, not everything is horrible there. However, I assume that they do watch to make sure we don’t hand anything over or pass along texts. They want contact, but not full contact. You can’t simply meet someone and talk to him all day. It’s mainly information and material items that they are strict about.
“There’s a story that in Pyongyang there is only one subway station and the guides take foreigners there and it’s all staged – they let them ride at one station because there aren’t any others, but it’s really hard for me to say that they took thousands of people and told them to go in and out of the station and act as though they are behaving normally. My impression was that people do lead an ordinary life – they wake up, go to work, take the subway, go out.”
Almost certainly, Podoler made history as the first Israeli to participate in an official running event in North Korea. He completed the city route of about 10 kilometers twice and topped this with another 400-meter circuit inside the stadium packed with 50,000 spectators. His timing for the 21-kilometer half-marathon was one hour, 36 minutes and 21 seconds.
The route in the city was relatively simple,” he relates. “Lots of people stood along the sides of the streets, cheering and applauding. I was moved to see many small children watching me. Some are very shy and some are bold and held out their hands for a high-five. If you slide your hand across theirs, you keep on running and hear them all excited and delighted behind you, as though ‘Hey, that strange white creature gave me his hand.’ They were very friendly. Suddenly they’re seeing hundreds of foreigners on the route, and I assume that for them this was an attraction.”
One of the tours was to the Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas. “The entire border is impassable and there is one point where on one side there are South Koreans and Americans and on the other North Koreans,” he explains. “This is where talks and meetings between the sides are held. Last summer I was at the same place on the southern side and this time I saw it from the north. It’s perhaps the most sensitive point on the Korean Peninsula. There, any sort of hitch could lead to a conflagration. The border is a line that runs along the ground and you can cross from one side to the other. The way the North Koreans conducted the tour surprised me. It was like, ‘Okay, we are going to visit another place.’ The soldier who was the guide there was very easygoing and all the behavior was a lot less stern than you would expect.”