North Korean students say they are confident in their country. Photo: Yeung Lai-yan

Hongkonger Yeung Lai-yan brought back two things from her first trip to North Korea last month – the women’s title of the Pyongyang Marathon and how proud local students are of being North Korean.

“The students we met in Pyongyang lack information about what is happening in the outside world,” Yeung told Asia Times in an interview. “They don’t dislike South Korea, but definitely have a bad perception of the US and capitalism.”

Yeung said North Korean students always gave a standard answer – “our country is the best” – when they discussed the merits of other nations.

The students were also very confident in their country’s military might and were not worried about fighting in a war, she said.

Hong Kong marathon runner Yeung Lai-yan talks to a group of top students in North Korea. Photo: Yeung Lai-yan

Yeung was among the few foreigners who were allowed by authorities to meet top students at a secondary school and a football training school in Pyongyang on April 10.

This was five days before North Korea leader Kim Jong-un hosted a military parade for the “Day of the Sun” Festival on April 15 to celebrate the 105th anniversary of the birth of the country’s founder and former leader Kim Il-sung.

She said that although the secondary school students knew little about the outside world, they could speak fluent English.

“They are real students … one of them said he was 17, but he looked like he was a lot younger, as he was rather thin and short,” Yeung said.

“They are curious about visitors like us. I told them that I am working in an information technology company while running is a hobby. They asked me whether I have two jobs as being a runner is an official job assigned by their government.”

Local runners in North Korea line up. Photo: Yeung Lai-yan

When the students were asked what jobs their parents had, they replied “scientists.”

Teachers were proud of their students, who had participated the 57th International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong last July, but they apparently did not know one of the participants had refused to return to North Korea after the game, Yeung said.

Last July, six North Korean students won two gold and four silver medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad in Hong Kong, but an 18-year-old sought political asylum at the South Korean consulate- general in the city. The student won a medal in the same competition in Thailand in 2015.

Pyongyang Marathon is an annual event. Photo: Chong Hiu-yeung

In the running

The North Korean government has been allowing foreigners to join the Pyongyang Marathon since 2014, which involved a 10km, half marathon and marathon races.

About 2,000 people participated in the marathon on April 9 this year and half of them were foreigners.

All runners began and ended their journey at Kim Il-sung Stadium, where a crowd of 70,000 fill the stands. The course for the half and full marathon took runners along the Taedong River.

A 70,000-strong crowd filled Kim Il-sung Stadium on April 9. Photo: Chong Hiu-yeung

Yeung, who started running marathons six years ago, said it was the first time she visited North Korea and achieving a personal best time of 3 hours 41 minutes for the 41km course made the trip even more special. She shaved 10 minutes off previous personal best.

Over the past year, she had been coached by an experienced runner Leung Shu-ming under a training regime organized by the Road Runner Athletic Club.

She said last month’s weather was ideal for marathon running in Pyongyang, but it was dusty along the Taedong River. She said she saw neither poverty nor beggars in the district where foreigners were allowed to go.

Yeung Lai-yan sets the pace on a sunny day in the race. Photo: Yeung Lai-yan

Knowing that water is a scarce resource in the country, Yeung said she saw a child collecting water from bottles left by runners.

As foreign visitors were required to stay with the local tour guides and could not walk freely, it was hard for outsiders to know what real living conditions were for locals, she said.

Local guides told her that locals had a monthly salary of only a few hundred yuan (US$50), as well as coupons to use in exchange for food and tools. Some people can get smartphones, but they are restricted to browsing within a national intranet.

New homes, which are allocated, are about 200 square meters in size, compared with the 120 square meters in the old ones, she said, citing the tour guides.

Yeung Lai-yan with her winner’s certificate. Photo: Yeung Lai-yan
Hong Kong runners are among 1,000 foreigners to run in Pyongyang last month. Photo: Yeung Lai-yan
Children smile as the runners go past. Photo: Chong Hiu-yeung