North Korea Hosts International Marathon In Bid To Increase Tourism

North Korea played host to hundreds of international runners on Sunday for the annual Pyongyang marathon, which was open to foreigners for the first time ever.

The streets of the North Korean capital were filled with fans who applauded and offered high-fives to runners, including North Korea’s Pak Chol, who finished in 2 hours, 12 minutes, and 26 seconds. Fellow North Koreans Kim Hye Gyong and her twin sister, Kim Hye Song, came in first and second in the women’s race.

The marathon is sanctioned as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations, and has been run every year for nearly three decades. But by opening it up this year, North Korea has made a move in its ongoing bid to increase tourism. Travel agencies that specialized in North Korean travel said interest in the marathon was robust, with many people interested in seeing the entire capital rather than just the race itself.

The marathon itself drew 225 amateur competitors from 27 different countries.

“I really wanted to do this race because of the location,” said 10-kilometer runner Jen Skym, a 32-year-old Briton living in Hong Kong, who is also four months pregnant. “The scenery was fantastic, and there were so many people watching. It was good motivation to get back into running. I really enjoyed it.”

But there were signs on the country’s strict control during the race. Competitors were barred from carrying American flags, and many parts of the nation were still closed to visitors.

Overall the race is seen as a trend toward more openness in North Korea. Earlier in the year, the country announced plans for special trade and tourism zones around the country. They also unveiled the first luxury ski resort.

North Korea has also taken part in a high-profile bid to promote basketball, with visits from NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman and an exhibition game earlier this year with former NBA players.