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North Korea Marathon Opens Pyongyang Streets to Foreign Tourists

Pyongyang was filled with runners from all over the world on Sunday for the annual marathon, open to foreign amateurs for the first time.

North Korean spectators watch from the stands of Kim Il Sung Stadium as runners line up a the start of the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon in Pyongyang, North Korea on Sunday.

The annual race, which includes a full marathon, a half marathon, and a 10-kilometer run, was open to foreign amateurs for the first time this year.

David Guttenfelder / AP

Runners pass under a pedestrian bridge in central Pyongyang.

Runners on the generally flat, full-marathon course did four loops around the center of the city of 2.5 million, starting at Kim Il Sung Stadium, moving past the Arch of Triumph, the Friendship Tower and the Kim Il Sung University area. They then crossed a bridge to the east side of the city and wound their way along the river bank to the stadium.

David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korean race officials stand at the finish line inside Kim Il Sung Stadium.

Known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race is sanctioned as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and has been held annually for 27 years. Organizers said they decided to allow foreign recreational runners because they wanted to hold a grander race as part of the series of sporting competitions, arts festivals and cultural events marking the birthday of the nation's founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

David Guttenfelder / AP

Young North Korean runners rest after finishing their part of the race.

Much of North Korea remains off-limits to foreigners, but Pyongyang, with its broad avenues, plazas and ubiquitous monuments, is more accessible than other places in the secretive and isolated country.

David Guttenfelder / AP

The lead pack of runners are cheered on by North Korean spectators on the roadside in central Pyongyang.

Officials said runners from 27 countries took part this year, including 225 amateurs. Though the race has long featured elite athletes from around the world, organizers decided to make it easier for fun-runners to join in by requiring only that the course be completed in four hours - so the roads could be reopened - and by also holding a half marathon and a 10-kilometer run.

David Guttenfelder / AP

Harriet Harrper-Jones, from England, and Allie Wu, from Taiwan, rest after competing in the shorter distance segments rest. The sign behind them reads "Long Live the Shining Revolutionary Tradition of Our Party."

The opening of the race to recreational runners is in keeping with the North's ongoing effort to earn cash revenue by boosting tourism, usually with group tours to major arts performances or attractions the North wants to show off. Tourism agencies that specialize in North Korea said they were surprised by the large number of entries they received, but noted most were from tourists who primarily wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to see Pyongyang close up, rather than compete in the race itself.

David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korean twin sisters Kim Hye Gyong and Kim Hye Song take a victory lap together inside Kim Il Sung Stadium after placing first and second in the the women's race.

Under the watch of young leader Kim Jong Un, the North has also been giving sports in general a higher profile. Simple recreational sports facilities, such as outdoor basketball courts and roller skating rinks, have been popping up lately in Pyongyang and some other cities.

David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korean spectators watch and cheer from the stands of Kim Il Sung Stadium as runners arrive at the finish line.

The capacity crowd of 42,000 spectators back in the stadium were treated to soccer games and martial arts exhibitions while they waited for the runners to return.

David Guttenfelder / AP

An elderly North Korean man enters Kim Il Sung Stadium in the last stretch of his run.

To keep the show from getting too colorful, however, the foreign runners were instructed not to carry U.S. or Japanese flags, or wear clothing with large writing or that was deemed inappropriately attention-getting or political - though one wore blue jeans for the 10-kilometer event. Runners said they were also not allowed to carry cameras during the race, though they snapped away afterward inside the stadium.

David Guttenfelder / AP

North Korean women in traditional dresses stand next to the running track inside Kim Il Sung Stadium.

Much of North Korea remains off-limits to foreigners, but Pyongyang, with its broad avenues, plazas and ubiquitous monuments, is more accessible than other places in the secretive and isolated country.

David Guttenfelder / AP