PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — Hundreds of foreigners joined in the annual Pyongyang marathon on Sunday despite political tensions that have only recently begun to ease and a ban on U.S citizens traveling to the country that is still in effect.
Approximately 400 foreign amateurs took part this year, less than half the number that came last year. They came from approximately 43 countries and territories around the world.
Disabled people were allowed to join in for the first time. One wheelchair runner from Singapore and one blind North Korean runner were in Sunday’s race.
This year’s marathon started in Kim Il Sung Stadium and wound past Pyongyang landmarks such as Kim Il Sung Square and Mirae Street, one of the North Korean capital’s recent redevelopment projects.
Thirteen foreign professional runners from African countries participated in the elite category of the race.
The men’s full marathon was won by North Korean Ri Kang Bom in 2 hours 12 minutes and 53 seconds.
The winner of the women’s full marathon was North Korean Kim Hye Gyong, who came in at 2 hours 27 minutes and 24 seconds, with her twin sister Kim Hye Song narrowly behind her.
“I’m glad that I was able to fulfill the expectations of the people,” men’s winner Ri said.
Since North Korea started allowing foreign amateurs to take part in the Pyongyang marathon in 2014, the event has become a boost for the tourism industry.
But in the past year, tensions on the Korean Peninsula over the North’s missile launches and nuclear tests last year, and a U.S. travel ban on its citizens visiting North Korea, have reduced the number of tourist arrivals.
Tensions peaked late last year, but have eased since January, when leader Kim Jong Un announced a series of diplomatic overtures toward South Korea.
“It’s the last two months we saw an increase in people, amateurs, wanting to join the marathon, simply because the geopolitics before were so, you know, tense, that people weren’t joining,” said Nick Bonner, head of Koryo Tours, which brought in many of the foreign tourist runners.
The competition is officially called the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon. Mangyongdae is where North Korea says its late founder, President Kim Il Sung, was born. It’s part of a series of events held to commemorate the anniversary of his April 15 birthday.
April 15 is called the Day of the Sun and is North Korea’s biggest holiday.
The International Association of Athletic Federations (IAAF) recognized this year’s Pyongyang marathon as a Bronze Label Road Race. It’s also accredited by the Association of International Marathons and Distance Races.