Wednesday 27 April 2016

My sister goes to North Korea for Pyongyang marathon with me

From The New Paper on Sunday:

On April 7, 13 North Korean restaurant workers defected en masse to South Korea.

This suggests that North Korea is a place people flee from, not flock to.

Yet three days later, 1,000 foreigners flocked to the reclusive country to run in the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, also known as the Pyongyang Marathon.

Singaporean Ong Wann was one of them. She was there with her brother, a running enthusiast, to race in the 10km category of the event.

He had asked her to go along to be his translator as she speaks Korean.

Miss Ong, 39, who owns and operates the Hanok Korean Language School in Singapore, had studied to be a Korean language teacher in Sogang University and Kyung Hee University in Seoul.

She had previously run the 10km race in the Standard Chartered Marathon and Great Eastern Women’s Run. This would be her first overseas race.

Was she apprehensive about going to North Korea, especially since an American tourist was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a poster from a Pyongyang hotel?

“Nope,” Miss Ong says. “I have friends who have been there and all of them got back safely.

“But the South Korean teachers in my school were both excited and worried for me. One of them said, ‘You must come back alive!’

“Although she was joking, I think she really meant it too.”

Miss Ong had to fly from Singapore to Beijing, China, to make the connecting flight to Pyongyang on Air Koryo, North Korea’s national carrier, which has been ranked the world’s worst airline four years in a row by Skytrax.

After surviving the two-hour flight, she was surprised to find that she could order a skinny latte at the Pyongyang airport cafe. “Some cafes in Singapore don’t even have low-fat milk,” she says.

Miss Ong was then taken in a tour bus to 22m-tall bronze statues of late North Korean leaders Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il and instructed to place flowers in front of the statues and bow to them.

During a pre-tour briefing, Miss Ong was told that the leaders were treated almost like religious figures, and visitors must be careful not to behave inappropriately at their monuments.

While photography is allowed, the whole statue must be in the frame. You cannot, for example, take a picture of the statues from the waist up.

There are other restrictions — no photos of the military, construction sites and local people without their permission.

But when Miss Ong saw a local couple using the giant statues as backdrop for a bridal shoot, she couldn’t resist taking a picture of them — without their permission.

It is a wonder she wasn’t arrested and sent to a labour camp immediately.

You are also not allowed to go anywhere without your tour guide. At the hotel, guests were warned not to wander beyond the hotel grounds.

Not that you would want or need to. In the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where Miss Ong stayed and the American stole the poster, you can drink at the bar, buy snacks, shop for souvenirs, get a haircut, swim, bowl, play billiards and table tennis, and sing karaoke to rock classics like Bohemian Rhapsody.

“During the pre-tour briefing, we were told there’s a massage parlour, which was really a brothel,” she says.

Before going to Pyongyang, Miss Ong also read that the North Koreans foreigners see on the streets are actors. To verify this, after completing her 10km race, she chatted with two young North Korean runners and asked for permission to take pictures with them. “They are not actors,” she concludes.

Her fluency in the Korean language also came in handy as she became the de facto translator for her tour group of runners from Europe, US, Israel and Hong Kong, who turned to her to find out the prices of souvenirs and decipher random signs and slogans on propaganda posters for sale.

“I know as tourists, what we saw and experienced are many times better than what most North Korean enjoy,” says Miss Ong.

“By talking to the local tour guides, it seems their leisure lives revolve around sports and hanging out with friends and family.

“Although they use mobile phones and have a national intranet instead of the Internet, they are careful about what they say and have a slower pace of life — it’s almost like going back to 30 years ago.

Miss Ong flew out of North Korea with her brother the day after the marathon and was surprised that at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, their cameras weren’t checked for unauthorised photographs.

The trip made her grapple with her presumptions about the country, “some true and others utter nonsense”, she says.

“I could describe the experience as surreal, strange, unexpected, because the place is really more normal than what we expected it to be.”

Back in Singapore, in the taxi from Changi Airport, Miss Ong mentioned to the driver that she and her brother had just returned from North Korea and was taken aback by the cabby’s intense reaction.

She recounts: “He started telling us how dangerous the place was and insisted that it wasn’t safe like we said.

“It was as if he was the one there — not us.”

From The Korea Times:
Pyongyang marathon runner says she felt no sense of crisis in Pyongyang

There appears to be no sense of crisis in Pyongyang according to a foreign participant in a North Korean marathon.

"I did not find any sense of crisis and uneasiness in North Korea despite the ongoing international sanctions," said a Singaporean woman, fresh from her rare trip to Pyongyang to participate in this year's annual Pyongyang marathon.

"The streets of Pyongyang, with the full blossoms of cherry and forsythia, were peaceful and people looked cheerful and bright," Ong Wann told Yonhap News Agency in a telephone conversation.

Ong, 39, made a rare three-day trip to Pyongyang from April 9 with her brother and joined the 10-kilometer half marathon course. Participants can choose to run the full or half marathon.

The Pyongyang marathon is officially called the "Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon." Mangyongdae is the place where North Korea says its founding leader Kim Il-sung and the late grandfather of the current leader Kim Jong-un, was born.

Kim Il-sung's birthday is April 15 and the marathon is one of many events staged to celebrate the key date.

This year marked the third time that foreign amateurs have been allowed to take part in the event. However, the race saw an increase in amateur participation -- nearly 1,000 foreign amateurs took part, the marathon's organizers said.

The Singaporean woman studied in South Korea previously and speaks Korean fluently. She is currently operating a Korean language institute in Singapore.

During her trip to Pyongyang, she occasionally acted as an interpreter for other foreigners including her brother.

She said the atmosphere in Pyongyang was far from any sense of crisis or insecurity although the marathon event was held under the severe international sanctions for the North's nuclear test in January and the long-range rocket launch the following month.

She explained the landscape of Pyongyang was generally peaceful when she looked around some tourist spots such as Mansudae Hill and nearby parks and subway stations.

"The streets of Pyongyang were full of cherry and forsythia blossoms and people on the streets look relatively bright," she said.

"At first I somewhat had a sense of fear as I had a negative image of North Korea which I had obtained from newspapers and media, but was able to adapt myself soon," she said.

"Before I went to North Korea I was told about the prohibitions on what to do and what is not allowed in the country. In fact, individual action was impossible without North Korean guides, but nevertheless their control was not as tight as I first imagined," she said.

Ong said she felt she came to a different world when she saw all the propaganda posters and mural paintings on the walls of subway stations in Pyongyang, which is quite different from commercial advertisements that are often seen in capitalistic countries.

She said that North Korea was also different from other former communist bloc countries which had transformed themselves into capitalistic system in some areas.

"I felt North Korea is not like China and Russia," she said.


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