Canadian shares rare glimpse of life in North Korea
Published Friday, April 25, 2014 8:51AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, April 25, 2014 9:34AM EDT
A Canadian woman got a rare glimpse inside North Korea, where she not only ran a marathon, but was able to capture candid images of life in a country where few foreigners are welcome.
Jen Loong, who works in China, took part in the annual Mangyondgae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea on April 13. The 42-kilometre race has been taking place since the early 1980s, but this year was the first time the marathon was opened to amateur foreign runners.
"It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience," Loong told CTV's News Channel in a recent telephone interview from Shanghai, China.
She said there were approximately 200 other foreigners who took part in the race, many of them expats who live in Beijing and Shanghai.
"Every turn, we were still very much under police and soldier watch," Loong said of her experience during the race. "But beyond that, during the run itself, it was so much friendlier than I would have thought."
"You see all these kids on the streets just wanting to high-five you and smile at you," she said.
The 25-year-old, who takes part in at least three or four international races each year, was in the Hermit Kingdom for a week, during which time the country celebrated the birthday of former leader Kim Il Sung. He would have turned 102 on April 15. In North Korea, Sung's birthday, also known as the "Day of the Sun," is a major national holiday. Since his death, the day has been celebrated with pageantry and displays of military prowess in the capital.
Besides running, Loong and the other foreign runners were also able to witness life beyond the marathon course during their stay.
"We did interact with a lot of locals. We danced with them, we asked them how they were, but surely the authenticity of what they shared, people may beg to differ that it was planned or choreographed."
Loong describes the country she experienced is akin to a time-warped China.
"I think it's literally China, probably in the 1950s…in terms of how people dressed and how they acted, how they went about the city, how the city looked like."
Loong's trip to North Korea is one of very few in recent years by a foreigner, prompting some to question the authenticity of what she saw.
"Pyongyang is the showplace for North Korea," Donald Baker, a professor of Asian studies at the University of British Columbia, told CTV Vancouver. "There's still starvation in the countryside, but Pyongyang people are comfortable, they live in modern buildings, so they want the world to see Pyongyang."
When Loong participated in an Asked in Ask Me Anything session on the popular website Reddit last week, she was asked if her recent visit to North Korea served to legitimize the North Koeran government's practices.
"The only thing I am legitimizing is the support for NK to open up to the rest of the world," Loong responded. "Allowing foreign runners to go in and see it on their own accord was truly a step in that direction."
Loong's photos of her trip can be seen on her Instagram account.