North Korea marathon has largest number of participants ever -- but no Americans

Runners will race through the North Korean capital in the annual event.

April 6, 2019, 8:19 AM

HONG KONG -- The Pyongyang International Marathon, known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, will be held this Sunday in the North Korean capital.

The race is touted as a unique experience.

Not only are runners allowed to run through the streets of Pyongyang, passing Kim Il-Sung Square and under the Arch of Triumph where normally tourists movements are strictly controlled, the race boasts an epic finish for each runner.

"You finish the race by running into a full [Kim Il-Sung] Stadium, filled with 50,000 people cheering you on," Marcus McFarland, Marathon coordinator for Beijing-based tour operator Koryo Tours, told ABC News.

PHOTO: Competitors cross the start line of the the annual Pyongyang marathon at Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang  in this April 8, 2018 file photo.
Competitors cross the start line of the the annual Pyongyang marathon at Kim Il Sung stadium in Pyongyang in this April 8, 2018 file photo.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images, FILE

This will be the 30th iteration of the marathon since it began in 1981, but it will only be the sixth year the race is open to foreign amateur runners. It is shaping up to be the race's biggest year with over 1,600 runners competing.

McFarland said their group will be bringing over 500 racers from all of Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South America to compete in the races taking place. That is up from the 230 runners Koryo Tours brought in last year.

Koryo Tours is the exclusive travel partner of the marathon, designated by the Olympics Committee of the DPRK to enter foreign racers from Western countries.

U.S. passport holders, however, still cannot travel into North Korea, nor are tour operators like Koryo Tours allowed to register them because of State Department travel restrictions put in place after the death of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was detained in North Korea from January 2016 to June 2017.

The ever-evolving political climate on the Korean Peninsula over the last couple years has impacted foreign tourism going into Pyongyang, but last year’s window of cooling tensions benefited registration for this year’s race.

McFarland said they started signing up runners for this year’s marathon last June, soon after U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met for the first time in Singapore.

By the time Trump walked away from the negotiating table with Kim in Hanoi at the end of February, all the marathon packages Koryo offered were already sold out.

The marathon is one of the largest sporting events of the year in North Korea and is meant to start the celebrations culminating in their most important holiday, the Day of Sun on April 15, which celebrates the birth of the Kim Il-Sung, the founder of North Korea.