Competitors run past the Ryugyong hotel during the annual Pyongyang marathon. Few poor North Koreans get to visit their showpiece capital, home to the nation's elite. Photo: AFP

Twice as many foreigners as last year gathered in Pyongyang on Sunday for the city’s annual marathon, tour firms said, as reduced tensions see visitor numbers rise in isolated North Korea.

The event – part of the celebrations for the anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birth in 1912 – is the highlight of the North’s tourism calendar and offers the chance to run or jog through the streets of the tightly-controlled city.

Around 950 Westerners entered the event, according to market leader Koryo Tours, compared to some 450 last year when numbers slumped.

That brought participation almost back to the levels of 2017, before tensions soared as the North carried out a series of missile launches and leader Kim Jong Un traded threats and personal insults with US President Donald Trump.

The same year, Washington also banned its citizens from visiting the North following the death of Otto Warmbier, a US student jailed for trying to steal a propaganda poster who died in a mysterious coma days after his release.

Several other countries subsequently raised their travel warnings, a combination of events that dealt a significant blow to the North’s tourism industry.

The US ban remains in place but more Western tourists signed up for the marathon this time, tour operators said, following a year of high-level diplomacy between Trump and Kim.

“As political tensions have subsided, tourism demand has increased,” said Elliott Davies, director at Uri Tours, another operator, adding: “You could plot a graph in this direct relationship.”

The vast majority of tourists to the North are Chinese and some 5,000 Westerners a year used to visit the North – with about 20% of those from the US – seeking unique adventures in one of the most closed countries in the world.

The annual race also attracts so-called “Marathon Chasers” who tick off runs around the world, said Matt Kulesza, a senior tour guide at Young Pioneer Tours.

Angel Arnaudov, a 34-year-old engineer from Macedonia, said Pyongyang came onto his “radar” after finishing more than 30 marathons in cities ranging from Tokyo, New York and Copenhagen.

“I want to experience the life in North Korea myself and see if it is like they say on TV or different,” he said.

For third-time participant Jasmine Barrett, the Pyongyang Marathon was an opportunity to interact with ordinary North Koreans who line the streets to cheer on the runners, offering high-fives and posing for selfies.

“I keep coming back because I love to see the smiles on the children’s faces,” the Australian entrepreneur told AFP. “I’d definitely recommend it to others because it’s a great way to see the city and the people who live there.”

Tour operators advise visitors to take extra precautions about “what to do and what not to do” when travelling in the North.

Simon Cockerell, Koryo Tours’ general manager, said: “This is vital when visiting North Korea and anyone wanting to travel shouldn’t go without a briefing.”

Meanwhile, North Korea has again pushed back the construction end-date of a massive beach resort – a move analysts say shows the regime is struggling from international sanctions.

The eastern seaside strip, known as the Wonsan-Kalma Coastal Tourist Area, is intended as a centrepiece of the isolated country’s nascent tourism industry as Pyongyang seeks to develop its economy despite the tough economic measures.

The site’s construction has been closely overseen by Kim, and was initially scheduled to open this April, to mark the birthday anniversary of Kim Il Sung.

But in a recent visit to the site, Kim delayed the finish date for the second time, ordering construction to be completed by the same time next year, the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Saturday.

The decision, would allow the workers “to perfectly finish it so that our people would fully enjoy themselves in the impeccable tourist area from the sea-bathing season next year”, KCNA quoted Kim as saying.

The plan was first pushed back last August when Kim extended the project by six months to October 2019.

The isolated North is under several sets of sanctions for its weapons programmes which analysts say has hampered efforts to secure materials needed to finish the vast beach complex.

“North Korea can complete the external construction of the hotels by itself but most of the finishing materials for the interior are imported,” Cho Han-bum, a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told AFP.

The economic measures banned imports of some items and Pyongyang was supplying the sanctioned goods with its foreign currency, Cho said, adding: “But that has also dried up.”

Satellite images taken by US monitors in December showed the buildings previously under construction were nearing completion.

“The North Korean economy has hit a limit with the sanctions,” Cho added.

Immediate sanctions relief was a key demand of the cash-strapped North when Kim met with Trump in Hanoi in February for a second summit that ultimately broke down.

Trump, the former real estate developer turned billionaire, has praised North Korea’s tourism potential, referring to its “great beaches” he said would make ideal locations for condos.

  • Agence France-Presse

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