A Very Short History
of Northern Korean

From Sinuiju to Berlin and Mangyondae to Atlanta

‘There is a marathon in North Korea? Are you serious?’

As out of place as it may seem, the marathon is just as at home in northern Korea as the 100 meter dash is in Jamaica or the United States.

The first record of a Pyongyang Marathon we've found goes back to 1921. From the 1920's onward, runners from all over Korea were active in long distance running. During the 1920's and 30's, runners from all over Korea participated in annual city marathons across the country, including Pyongyang, as well as inter-city races such as the Seoul—Pyongyang Marathon (경평마라손) and the cross-peninsula Pusan—Sinuiju Marathon.

These events paved the road, literally, for Korean athletes to shine at the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin.

Berlin, 1936

Jessie Owen’s victory in the 100 m at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of the glaring eyes of thousands of Nazi spectators arguably represents one of the greatest moments in American sports history. The Berlin Olympics saw a similarly defining moment in Korean sports history: the first Olympic medal won by a Korean athlete.

The athlete was Sohn Kee-Chung and he won a gold medal in the men’s marathon. Sohn was born in Sinuiju, a city located on the border with China and today located in North Korea, in 1914. Japan had formally annexed Korea in 1910 and remained in control of the peninsula until 1945. Sohn’s gold at Berlin in 1936, thus, went towards to the medal count of Imperial Japan.

Sohn’s 1936 marathon run appears in Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia: Festival of Nations (1936).

Yet Sohn never let Fascist propaganda in Germany or Japan define him. Andy Bull at the Guardian has written an excellent recount of Sohn’s life at the intersection of sports and politics in ‘The forgotten story of Sohn Kee-chung, Korea's Olympic hero’. The article ends with a powerful quote from Sohn: ‘The Japanese could stop our musicians from playing our songs. They could stop our singers and silence our speakers. But they could not stop me from running.*’

(*During the colonial era, Japan instituted cultural polices aimed at restricting, if not dismantling, Korean culture. Such policies included the prohibiting restrictions on the worship of non-Shinto religions, prohibition of the learning of Korean in schools and even the use of Korean names).

Sohn ended up in the south after the division of Korea and took with him his marathon legacy, training numerous future athletes and running the Olympic torch into the stadium at the opening ceremony of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

The Modern Pyongyang Marathon

The earliest records of the marathon’s return to northern Korea is in 1981 with the 1st Manggyondae Prize International Marathon (만경대상국제마라손경기대회), aka ‘The Pyongyang Marathon’, held in April around the occasion of ‘Day of the Sun’ holiday. ‘Manggyongdae’ is a place name, referring to the area of Pyongyang, once a small village, where President Kim Il Sung was born in 1912.

Both local Korean runners – representing different provinces of Korea – and foreign runners took part in the event. The Pyongyang Marathon initially was held for only men, the event later expanding to include women a few years later.

As with football, Korean women have come ‘to hold up (more than) half the sky’, holding down a better record their male counterparts at home in domestic and international events. Korean women have won the Mangyongdae Prize Marathon for the past 17 years. The men’s event has a more diverse range of winners: Koreans, Chinese, Ethiopians, Russians, and Ukrainians.

The race has been traditionally held starting and ending in Kim Il Sung Stadium. (For a short history of the stadium itself, see our 'Turn Back the Clock Thursday' post from January 19, 2017.)

Jong Song Ok - ‘Let’s All Run Following the Asian Champion’

North Korea’s most famous marathon runner today is Jong Song Ok (정성옥), who placed 20th in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and 1st at 1999 World Championship in Seville, Spain. Here a short biography of Jong from the Korean Central News Agency:

She was born of an ordinary worker’s family in Sokchon-dong, Haeju City, South Hwanghae Province on August 18,1974, She, so much liked running from her earliest days, entered the running Club in Saekori Primary School, Haeju. And she started to receive the professional training in the Haeju University of Physical Education in September 1985, and she had grown up to an elite runner in Amnokgang team by her coach, Sin Kum Tan, People’s Athlete who had been renowned in the World Athletics in the 1960’s. She took part in the National Championship for the first time in her career in October 1995 and from this time, she had been placed in the high standings in the 'Paektusan Prize' and 'Mangyongdae Prize' Sports Competitions etc. Jong Song Ok won the gold medal at the women’s marathon of the 7th World Track and Field Championships, and from this time she has been called the world marathon 'Queen;. She breasted the tape in 2 hours 26minutes 59 seconds in the 35 degrees C. of sultry weather in Seville.

Her story is told in the Korean film Marathon Runner (Kr. ‘달려서 하늘까지’; 2000 ).

You too can follow in the foot-strides of Jong Song Ok at the Pyongyang Marathon. Koryo Tours offers annual Pyongyang Marathon North Korea tours departing from Beijing, Shanghai, and Dandong that will allow you to take part in the race. Like they say in the movie:

‘Let’s All Run Following the Asian Champion!’

Updated 18 October 2018

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