Americans to run in Pyongyang, but not for their lives

Peter Parks | AFP | Getty Images

Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea may be high after the hack attack on Sony Pictures late last year, but the upcoming 28th Pyongyang marathon in April is expected to attract more westerners than ever.

"We expect a large number of foreign runners this year, possibly around 500 or so. Last year there were around 200 foreign amateur runners and about a dozen or so professionals," Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which offers a Pyongyang marathon package, told CNBC.

The marathon, which was opened to foreigners last year in a bid to boost tourism, is part of annual birthday celebrations for former North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung – the grandfather of Kim Jong-un. Sung's birthday is on April 15.

There were concerns the event will suffer backlash after Washington in December accused North Korea of launching a cyberattack on Sony Pictures to block the release of The Interview – a Hollywood film depicting the assassination of Kim Jong-un.

But U.S. marathoners appear to be taking it in stride. "About 25 percent of the people we take to North Korea are Americans, and for the marathon it's even more," said Cockerell. "This doesn't affect tourism."

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Marathoners can choose to do a full marathon, half-marathon or a 10 kilometer race. En route to the finish line, they will pass a number of renowned North Korean monuments including the Arch of Triumph, the Eternal Life Tower and the People's Army acrobatic theater.

"You get a medal for a top-three finish, and every finisher gets a certificate, Cockerell said. "If you win the pro-marathon, there is a cash prize as well."

This year's event also comes with humanitarian perks – for every person that signs up to run the marathon through Koryo Tours, the company will donate 365 packaged meals to North Korean orphanages.

But for some, the highlight is to finish in the Kim Il-sung stadium, which will be packed with 50,000 cheering spectators.

"I know it's bizarre, but I may run the marathon with my friend," a British citizen residing in Singapore who wished to remain anonymous told CNBC. "The thought of finishing before the crowd in Kim Il-sung stadium is incredible."

"My wife isn't so happy about the idea though, so I haven't booked anything yet," he said.