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North Korea: Witness to Transformation

Biking Into Rason

by | November 24th, 2013 | 11:20 am

Marc Noland runs, I ride. But I missed the story of a bike race into North Korea in September. Nordic Ways is a Swedish company that promotes Nordic-style sports in China. Among other events, it organized a non-timed ride in September called the “Nordic Ways Vasa China-DPRKorea International Cycling Tourism Festival,” part of a larger bicycle tour called the Vätternrundan China in Jilin province (named after a famous Swedish ride); Facebook here; the Nordic Ways page here. The 50 or so cyclists were bussed to the North Korean side of the river at the Quanhe land port for the 50K ride into Rason along a course that looks spectacularly beautiful; plus, no traffic.

But the apparent shock for the riders is that when they arrived in Rason, the local authorities had pulled out all of the stops: the streets were lined with thousands of people and the riders got a royal reception. According to Johan Nylander, who covered the race for CNN, Chon Dong Chol, head of the Rason tourism bureau, was on hand to trumpet Rason’s development as a “world-class economic and trade city.”

The North Koreans managed to get some bad press out of the event when Nylander was stopped by a low-level border guard who seized Nylander’s camera and deleted 90 photos from it. Nylander took his camera to a Hong Kong firm specializing in data retrieval, got the images back, and posted a photo essay that was a lot less forgiving than others we have covered. Nylander goes on about the apparently liberal ground rules he was offered, and then the casual way in which his work was tossed away without apparent reason. Some of the participants in the race raised the disconnect of lavish banquets and malnourished children as well as the question of where tourist dollars ultimately went in North Korea, a question raised by my colleague last Sunday.

But in the end, I side with Dan Pinkston’s thoughtful defense of people-to-people engagement. The long-run benefits from exposure and normalization of a foreign presence probably outweigh the costs. And for those who don’t want to ride, don’t ride.