“If you don’t believe in the value engagement brings, then don’t visit.”
North Korea—unlike neighbors China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—just isn’t as prone to external influence and regional development despite its location in one of the most technologically-connected regions in the world. Although the Internet is slowly inching past the regime’s grip on people’s access to information there, such progress is only a reality for some North Koreans. The reality remains that much of the country’s citizens remain impoverished without much room for change. However, one of the few ways that North Korea has not remained stagnant during the past decade is the country’s increasing engagement with international events and cultural exchanges within its borders.
The Pyongyang Marathon this week, first held in 1981, is a perfect example of the country’s expanding role in the international perspective. Once attended by only a small amount of die-hard runners and curious travelers, this year’s event hosted over 650 runners from 30 countries.
One tour group takes a photo at Shanghai Airport on the way to the Pyongyang Marathon
Running through these Pyongyang landmarks must be quite a thrill for participants.
The women’s victory podium included the daughter of an American Korean War veteran for third place (Photo: Patty Hunter)
The controversy whether to engage with a totalitarian regime, even on the level of an international sporting event, will perhaps always remain in the discourse regarding North Korea. Despite the largely Western viewpoint that North Korea is exclusively defined by humanitarian atrocities and nuclear weapons, it appears that the latest U.S. sanctions on the DPRK will have little effect on the regime’s agenda.
The balance between addressing the state’s humanitarian concerns vis-a-vis realistically dealing with the international community’s heightened cultural interest in North Korea is a context that calls for analyses much more progressive than those by the usual neocon-types who clearly have had limited success with their approaches to certain targeted governments (Cuba comes to mind here). What's most interesting is that many of our European, African, Asian, and South American allies have much more youthful and liberal views towards North Korea—a circumstance which has ultimately fueled the ongoing growth of North Korean tourism, as well as a potential gateway to more substantial relations in the years ahead.
International events like the Pyongyang Marathon will likely continue its annual increase in the number of foreign visitors despite the old-world view that North Korea should be off-limits to casual travelers—tourists now routinely ignore travel warnings to visit Pyongyang through specialized travel agencies. Despite our broken media’s provincial breakdowns of the DPRK, it’s hard to ignore the obvious reality that not everyone shares the conservative opinion on what to do with the Kim regime. Perhaps keeping this reality in mind is what is now needed to properly strategize the future of the United States’ stakes in this region.