North Korea Bans Foreign Runners, Cites Ebola Threat

Open Jaw

Sometimes it seems that North Korea wants more visitors, sometimes it doesn’t. In October of last year, the country closed its borders due to Ebola fears. In December, it launched a new tourism website featuring smiling kids, dogs and missiles.

But now, with the African Ebola crisis appearing to be under control, North Korean authorities have barred foreigners from one of the year's most popular tourist events — the annual Pyongyang marathon. The reason: Ebola again.

While no cases of Ebola have been reported anywhere near the Hermit Kingdom, the country has some of the strictest Ebola regulations in the world. North Korean media have suggested Ebola was created by the U.S. military as a biological weapon.

The Associated Press reports that Nick Bonner, co-founder of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, said he did not think the decision reflected any deeper problems in the North's secretive and often enigmatic government. However, the news comes amid reports leader Kim Jong Un has called for increased combat readiness and, at a meeting of senior party and military leaders, described tensions on the peninsula as graver than ever before.

Bonner said more than 400 foreign runners had signed up with his agency alone for the event, set for 12APR. He said he was informed by officials on Monday that the race — billed as one of the most exotic marathon locales on Earth — would be open only to local runners. Another agency specializing in North Korea travel, Young Pioneer Tours, also confirmed on its website that it was cancelling its tours for the event.

North Korea has been under increasing pressure from the U.N. over its human rights record and is facing new sanctions from Washington over its alleged involvement in the massive hack attack on Sony Pictures in December. Joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea, that the North says are a provocation, will also begin soon.

Last year's race through the streets of Pyongyang, including a 10 km competition and a half marathon along with the full course, was open to foreign recreational runners for the 1st time and was a big success. Elite runners from around the world are usually brought in for the main event. Bonner said they apparently won't be allowed in this year.

Since the Ebola measures were announced last October, visas for nonessential travel have been halted and, regardless of country or region of origin, all foreigners allowed in are technically subject to quarantine under medical observation for 21 days.

(will not be published)