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The New Paper
24 April 2016
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."