10 Things I Didn’t Expect Running Through North Korea


Some things you truly do once in a lifetime, in that you will probably never get to experience it again. Participating in this month’s Pyongyang Marathon was exactly that. Once. In. A. Lifetime.

Though in its 27th year in the running, this year’s race was the first time foreign amateurs were allowed to try the course. With some confusion around logistics like permission of snacks, use of camera, and time restrictions (3:15 to finish the full allegedly), it was evident that this inaugural incidence posed as great stress for our fearful tour guide leading a group of expats from mostly China. When we marched into the stadium of 50,000 Pyongyang citizens clapping in unison, that’s when it dawned that this run is so much more than personal PBs and results.

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1. Friends, not foes

Whether it’s cheering children yelling “hello!” or “how are you!” along the run, or high-fiving giggling teenagers, Pyongyang was more welcoming than I could ever imagined. You read journalism assuming that North Koreans detest western values lifestyle, but while they may be true to a limited extent, my encounters with the locals were kind, curious and at times sarcastically funny! When walking through a park on their national holiday celebrating Kim Il Sung’s birthday, they unhesitantly pulled me into their dance circles. Their innocence shone through their friendliness.

A drunk man dancing:

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2. Oddly beautiful city

Pyongyang, by definition, means “flat land” or “land of peace” depending on how you see it. Driving through the city, you find ironically standout architecture puncturing through the city’s otherwise fairly flat landscape. This included their own version of the Arc de Triumph commemorating the Korean War, the supposedly world’s tallest stone tower Juche Tower championing self reliance at 170m tall, countless monuments, statues and flower-adorned parks. What stroke me as most surprising was nearly every balcony had at least a pot of beautifully coloured flowers, marking the presence of their leaders in everyday people’s lives.

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3. They run fast

Out of the 1000 runners, about 80% of them were North Koreans, noticeably different by their shorter heights (half of me!). When the gun fired to start the race, the Koreans rushed full speed up the hill outside of the stadium; I couldn’t have even kept up if I had sprinted at full speed. When you run for something, or run away from something, you have a purpose that fuels you with fire and determination.

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4. It’s all about the arts

Art is evident at the turn of every corner on our trip. I caught myself mesmerized admiring young girls dancing in their traditional gowns so graciously, and the Pyongyang Philharmonic playing through a marching piece with glaring passion and precision. Walking through their capital’s central Moran Park, I kept stumbling into mass dance groups, pondering painters, and young adults singing the latest tunes off of their propaganda radio channels. For a nation that is painted so grey on the outside, it was filled with nothing short of tunes and dance steps in the inside.

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5. Tasted better than fast food!

That’s an understatement; in fact the food was more flavorful than I had prepared for. Granted, we were probably treated like queens and kings through every meal, and that those meals are not representative of the locals’ diet. However, it really was an unique gastronomic adventure. The barbeque duck paired with spicy plum sauce was a stand-out, followed closely by a traditional 11-dish appetizer sets, bimbimbap (stone-bowl fried rice) and kimchi. The Korean diet also heavily included fried food like chicken and potatoes, too. I visited a few microbreweries which had smooth and light beers on tap that tasted much more refreshing than North American comparison. The Korean champagne, however, was far too acidic for the unacquainted taste.

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6. Languages and library

For a city of 2.5 million roughly, the capital Pyongyang houses 36 universities, and thousands of students came out for the mass dance on Kim Il Sung’s birthday. When we visited the People’s Grand Study Hall (their equivalent of a central library), we walked by rooms of people reciting English pages on How Astronauts Travel, stereos playing The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, and students copying books in high-level mathematics and foreign languages. While those may be interpreted as staged studious display, the tour guides we came across spoke impeccable English, Chinese, Japanese, German and French, just to name a few. Theses folks in the capital are more learned than I assumed. I was told that as of last month, the government started offering free 12-year education for children to attend rightful education.

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7. Soldiering on

While it is true that we were not allowed to take pictures freely, particularly of military officials, the capital saw relatively lower soldier presence. In the countryside, you see these men waving their handguns off at children crowded around us curious for a candy or a smile. These soldiers though are still human beings, and seeing them engaged and clapping along the roadside of the marathon gave me confidence that them too were getting connected to the outside world through the run itself.

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8. Love thy neighbors, but really

April is the equivalent of spring-cleaning month sweeping across the nation. I saw groups of women kneeling in front of their compounds picking out weed grass by hand. What’s important is that they genuinely live for the wellbeing of others – that includes their supreme leaders, their families, their neighbors, and their fellow citizens. It awes me that their complete devotion to the system of supporting their peers ultimately came across as so peaceful and simple. What would it take to inspire our local communities to truly live a selfless life? What about your community?

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9. China’s tremendous economic growth

Looking back at all the footage, it almost looked as if I was time travelling to 1950s’ China with the communist suits, leaders’ chest pins and haircuts. This visual time warp also reminded me just how remarkable it is that China has since seen unprecedented growth and economic development, and we are so blessed to have a home in Shanghai as a brand, to inspire more people to pursue a sweaty and meaningful lifestyle. To think just 70 years ago, China would have looked like the streets I just ran on in North Korea, surely puts things into imprinted perspective.

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10. They don’t know what they don’t know

At lululemon, we often make the distinction that much of the world constitutes less of what we do know, than what we don’t know that we don’t know. That cannot be more accurate in the context of my Pyongyang Marathon experience. Even if international press paints North Korea in a certain light, ultimately it is a country where there are no banks (not one!), and its citizens live rent- and tax- free with rations allocated by the government for food, healthcare, and even theme-park admission. To liberalize an isolated state is to create genuine human connections on an individual basis, and you can do that by travelling in, creating your own conversations, and making your own interpretations from the interactions. That could be one smile, one high-five, one hello, one snapshot, or one heck of a trip.

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