Despite tension, North Korea lets in tourists, athletes

Last Updated: Monday, April 15, 2013 - 13:19

Pyongyang: Despite North Korea`s warnings that the threat of war on the Korean Peninsula is so high it cannot guarantee the safety of foreign residents, it hosted athletes from around the world for an international marathon held as part of celebrations for late President Kim Il Sung`s birthday on Monday.

The race through the North Korean capital yesterday and the crowds who turned out to watch suggested that the country`s concerns of an imminent military crisis might not be as dire as its official pronouncements proclaim.

The mixed message - threats of a "thermonuclear war" while showcasing foreign athletes and even encouraging tourism - has been especially striking in the lead-up to today`s holiday for the birthday of North Korea`s first leader.

Early today, Kim`s grandson and the current dynastic leader, Kim Jong Un, visited the Kumsusan mausoleum in Pyongyang`s outskirts to pay "high tribute in humblest reverence" where his grandfather`s body lies embalmed, the official Korean Central News Agency said. He also visited the embalmed body of his father, the country`s second leader, who died in December 2011.

Foreign governments have been struggling to assess how seriously to take North Korea`s recent torrent of angry rhetoric over continuing US-South Korea military manoeuvres just across the border. Officials in South Korea, the United States and Japan say intelligence indicates that North Korean officials, fresh off an underground nuclear test in February, are ready to launch a medium-range missile.

But there has almost no sense of crisis in Pyongyang. Yesterday, athletes from 16 nations competed in the 26th Mangyongdae Prize Marathon in the morning. In the afternoon, tourists filled a performance hall for a gala concert featuring ethnic Korean performers brought in from China, Russia and Japan as part of the events culminating in Kim`s birthday, called the "Day of the Sun."

After racing through the capital, the foreign athletes and hundreds of North Korean runners were cheered into Kim Il Sung Stadium by tens of thousands of North Korean spectators.

"The feeling is like, I came last year already, the situation is the same," said Taiwan`s Chang Chia-che, who finished 15th.

Showing off foreign athletes and performers as part of the birthday celebrations has a propaganda value that is part of Pyongyang`s motivation for highlighting the events to its public, even as it rattles its sabers to the outside world.


First Published: Monday, April 15, 2013 - 13:08
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