As her plane descended from the clouds on its final approach to Pyongyang, Jen Loong couldn’t help but feel uneasy. From the moment they entered North Korean airspace, the country had been covered with a thick haze. Was it trying to hide something?
Visiting a state where secrecy is cherished and disinformation is spread with zeal, Loong’s misgivings were understandable. North Korea is frequently referred to as “the hermit kingdom” and for good reason. For every rumour-sourced and intelligence-gathered story that comes out about the country — stories describing purges, famines, work camps, nuclear capability — there is a story that seems to take a turn for the bizarre. Because of the odd mix of rhetoric, rumour and intelligence-driven conjecture that defines its place in the global media, North Korea remains a mystery for most people.
“Even if what you’re shown is orchestrated, this isn’t a joke.”
Two months earlier, Loong, who lives in Shanghai, had applied to participate in the 27th Annual Pyongyang Marathon. Although elite foreign runners had been invited to participate for more than a decade, 2014 marked the first year foreign amateurs were welcome.
“I’ve always wanted to go to North Korea,” she says. “I think it’s on a lot of people’s bucket lists, living in Asia.” As a runner, Loong often uses races as a reason to travel to new places, but she had never gone somewhere quite like this. Despite some trepidation, she didn’t think twice. “When I heard about this marathon, I jumped, and the next thing I knew I was sorting out all the paperwork to get the visa.”
But now she was on the plane and there was no turning back. She had never been more scared in her life. “There are so many expectations running around in your head that I think I had psyched myself out,” she says.
Loong’s plane finally landed on a runway carved through an agricultural scene that was almost cinematic in its perfection. The plane taxied for several minutes over bridges and past oddly-placed scarecrows, tractors and farmers. Something about it didn’t quite seem real and Loong suspected it was all a big performance being staged for the tourists on board. “It was picture perfect,” she says. “I’ve never seen an airport runway that’s so crafted to show you something.”
As she stepped onto the tarmac, reality hit. “Even if what you’re shown is orchestrated,” she says, “this isn’t a joke.” She was in an unfamiliar place with a startling absence of directional signage amidst an extraordinary display of military control. She was terrified of taking a misstep. As she handed over her passport at the immigration checkpoint it felt like she was surrendering a piece of herself. “It felt so different. Like now you’re playing by their rules,” she says.
This tension continued throughout the early part of her trip. Although she was initially guarded when asking questions of her ever-present tour guides, worried that they would be reporting her activities to some unknown authority, she quickly grew comfortable enough to ask them almost anything. She started to see them less as agents of the state and more as regular people doing a job like any other.
The day of the race marked a turning point for her. Her impressions of the country started to shift as she ran past cheering crowds and among the city’s bold communist-inspired structures and iconography. She was struck by its odd beauty while growing increasingly confused about what was a genuine representation of life and what was being orchestrated for the marathoners’ consumption.
“There wasn’t a patch of the lawn that didn’t have a barbeque or dance party, or just 60-year-old grandmas drinking soju and having a good time.”
Loong focused much less on the competition than she normally would. She wanted to take in as much as possible, while connecting with spectators along the way. She gave out high-fives and hugs, and on a few occasions kids entered the track and started running alongside her. The race offered her the opportunity to see a side of the city and its people that tourists rarely have access to. “I was embracing the fact that I was running freely through the tunnels and the streets of an otherwise very heavily-guarded city,” she says.
In the days following the race, Loong played the part of a tourist, participating in whatever the guides had scheduled. They visited the North Korean approximation of an American fast food restaurant and were shown how the hard-working citizens of Pyongyang dutifully pull weeds from their gardens during their Month of National Cleaning.
Despite rigid controls on her activities, Loong was able to capture unusually-candid photos of life in Pyongyang. For this, she credits a camera breakdown that forced her to rely on her less conspicuous iPhone.
The photos she has shared on Instagram reflect her overall impressions of the country. “It’s brown, yellowy, and grey,” she says. “Many of the buildings were built around the same time Mao built a lot of the Communist compounds in China. They’re dated and not really that well-kept. It’s just very washed out.”
The clothing styles of the people reinforce this feeling. “A lot of them are still in Mao suits and these are all grey and green,” she says. “It literally felt like a nation trapped in a time warp.”
Even now, months later, Loong finds it difficult to reconcile her expectations with the genuine moments she shared with the country’s people. She fondly describes her experience spending Kim Il Sung’s birthday – the biggest national holiday – in Pyongyang’s central park. “There wasn’t a patch of the lawn that didn’t have a barbeque or dance party, or just 60-year-old grandmas drinking soju (a clear Korean liquor) and having a good time,” she says. “Those moments felt genuine in that they were just normal human beings enjoying a good day in the park with their friends and family,” she says. But she could never stop her mind from going back to the idea that maybe this was just another demonstration of the state’s control: that they were told to be there.
When she reflects back and tries to make sense of it all, she leans towards the more positive interpretation. “There was nothing orchestrated about me dancing with a North Korean man for ten minutes, just clapping, singing, twirling and having a good old time. Even if he was placed there, that moment of sheer joy and sharing a moment through arts, music and dance, that was real.” She recalls, “There were so many of those glimpses of genuine moments, human to human connection, that I don’t get in Shanghai, and back home in Canada even less so.”
Loong is not naïve about the country’s massive human rights and humanitarian issues. However, the many positive interactions she had with North Korea’s people demonstrate that engagement at this level can be beneficial. Regardless of the state’s reasons for opening up the marathon and allowing foreign amateurs to race, she is glad to have had the opportunity. After all, she strongly believes in the idea that sports diplomacy – like her participation in this marathon – can be an effective door to the country.
“Running into that stadium with 50,000 Pyongyang citizens — just having them watch us run and experience what we experienced — that’s why this trip was way more memorable than going on any other tours within the country because at the end of the day, we were just running through the streets,” she says. “That’s all it was.”
Photos courtesy of Jen Loong, BCom’11.