North Korea: sports tourism

Pyongyang Marathon

By Robert Willoughby

Pyongyang MarathonSporting events have long been a conduit for engaging with North Korea, be it from exchanges of taekwondo teams to one-offs such as the first cricket game played there in 2009, while of late Dennis Rodman has put basketball at the centre of his off-beat diplomacy with Kim Jong Un.

Under the reign of the latter much more has become possible for mere mortals, from running marathons to surfing. Few tours focus exclusively on such activities, with most involving at least a full day’s tour and night in Pyongyang, but that’s all part of the show.

With the country now open all winter there’s more time for skiers to get in at the Masik Pass ski resort, which the world has derided as a waste of scant resources on a luxury project, but sanctions preventing western ski-lift manufacturers exporting to North Korea didn’t stop the resort becoming operational (with Chinese equipment) this year. It comprises 11 runs, with 17 kilometres of slopes and very few skiers clogging them up.

April 2014 saw the first Pyongyang marathon open to international amateur runners, with half-marathon and 10-kilometre distances also on offer. Winners of the professional men’s race have included Kenyans and Ukrainians, while the women’s victors have been exclusively North Korean. The 2015 race date of April 12 means it won’t clash with the London Marathon as it did in 2014.

Golf tours have been around for years, and 19 miles outside the capital is the 18-hole, seven-kilometre long, par 72 Pyongyang Golf Course. In July 2014 it held the two-day North Korean Amateur Open.

By the way, there’s been a long-standing myth that the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il aced every hole at this course – the kind of ludicrous claim that North Korea is infamous for making about its leaders, but this one is actually a joke of foreign origin. That many people believe anyway exemplifies the state’s epic mythologising. The plot thickens!

North Korea hiking

The first cycling tour of North Korea in 2011 was so successful it’s been repeated and expanded to comprise numerous jaunts over several days at locations countrywide, ranging from 50 kilometres in the stunning hills around Mt Paektu, to a burst across Pyongyang, with camping now an option on some tours.

Surfing was seen for the first time in summer 2014 at the east coast resorts of Songdowon, Lake Sijung and Majon, although armed guards on the beaches erode any illusions of surfer paradise. For now, surfing is too new to feature on any western tour company itinerary. Hiking is also becoming established, with an extreme example of what’s possible exemplified by the two-month, 735-kilometre hike along the Paektu-Daegan trail undertaken by Roger Shepherd in 2012 and listed under his South Korea-based firm Hike Korea. AA

When to go

North Korea no longer closes to tourists during winter, with December to February naturally being the best time to ski, however access to Mt Paektu is usually from spring to late autumn. Summers are hot, but inland July and August are particularly humid. For good weather the finest times are May-June and September-October.

Freelance journalist Robert Willoughby is the author of the Bradt Guide to North Korea; its third and latest edition was released in September. Koryo Tours contributed to the writing of that guide.