There aren’t many Westerners who set foot in North Korea, but Jen Loong not only set foot in the reclusive nation earlier this month but stomped over it for 26.2 miles with little supervision.
Loong, a Canadian who lives in Shanghai for business, ran this year’s Pyongyang Marathon, the first time the race was open to foreigners, and stayed in the North Korean capital for a week, a time that also covered the country’s founder Kim Il-Sung’s birthday. She chronicled her adventure on Instagram.
“I flip-flopped on this before going too,” Loong said in a Reddit Ask Me Anything on Monday in response to a question asking her if she felt like she was legitimizing the controversial, notoriously closed-off government.
“The only thing I am legitimizing is the support for NK to open up to the rest of the world, and allowing foreign runners to go in and see it on their own accord was truly a step in that direction,” she said.
The visit was special, Loong said, because during the marathon she wasn’t closely followed by government officials — a rarity in totalitarian North Korea.
“This was one of the special perks of the run, where we ran unguided for the full distance, high-five-ing locals along the way,” she told Reddit. “We couldn’t run off tracks surely with soldier on every block, but running at your own pace and interacting with locals was good enough for me!”
Still, Loong continued to be cautious, especially after hearing that her hotel room was allegedly wiretapped.
“The rooms looks like something out of a 1970s movie set with the floor stereo, maroon carpeting, etc. The hotel was actually built in 1995, which leaves me wondering where they got all these backwards furnitures [sic] from,” she said of her lodgings. “The shower tap rained out brown water (literally) at first use, but other than that it was mildly comfortable. I was told the rooms were tapped, so whispered most of the times while I was in the room, HA!”
Though the experience was occasionally disturbing, Loong said she saw plenty of beauty and humanity as well — something that made her encourage other foreign runners to make the journey.
“It’s the world’s most mysterious state; I’ve read many books and journalism on N. Korean generalities, and I had to go there myself to see it with my own two eyes to make my own judgement,” she said. “The run is the only way to see Pyongyang unguided, and heck what a great adventure it was!”