“It was easy enough to spot my cheerleader: She was the only person shouting in a crowd of quiet, curious, shy supporters. Her visage dug with deep wrinkles, but she was full of energy and smiles. When I saw her, I merged to the right and gave her a high-five. When I did, a group of women started to cheer me, (‘Bali! Bali!’), and a bunch of kids ran toward me to get their own high-fives. The ice was broken.”
Nick Busca was a foreigner running a marathon, and up until that point, as he describes in an enlightening Quartz piece that ran Friday, the host country’s citizens had been standoffish. But as Busca would later explain, once the connection was made on the human level, everything else fell away.
Considering this first-hand account — particularly within the context of the current mainstream news headlines — it may surprise readers to know that the host nation Busca is describing is North Korea.
The marathoner opens his story with pain, explaining how his training had been inadequate for the Southeast Asia climate. Busca was in “all sorts of trouble,” he writes, when he heard his cheerleader’s words.
“Bali! Bali!,” incidentally, means “Quicker! Quicker!”
Busca explains that while he was still in physical agony, the simple human gestures were enough to bring his mind back into focus:
“However, those few words of encouragement were able to distract me temporarily from the pain and bring me back to (sur)reality: I was running the North Korea Marathon.”
This wasn’t the first time Nick Busca had run the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, which is held annually in the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang. He’s been running the 42-kilometer race for the past three years and says the positive feedback he got from locals this year is by no means atypical.
“It wasn’t the first time I had bonded with fellow amateur athletes in North Korea,” he writes for Quartz. “In 2014, I found myself talking to an engineering student on a chairlift at the Masik Pass Ski Resort; on the flight there from Beijing, I also chatted with a few members of a women’s soccer team who were coming back from a tournament in Asia.”
“The day after this year’s marathon, with our legs begging for mercy, my tour group visited a soccer academy and played with six- and seven-year-old children. In all of these occasions, when the language barrier kept our cultures apart, sports functioned as a catalyst for social interaction.”
Busca points out that the Olympic charter, which the marathoner notes is held up as “the pinnacle of how we value sports,” promotes a “peaceful society, the preservation of human dignity, and the celebration of friendship as its main values.”
He also reminds readers that even among bitter enemies, sports can act as a vehicle to find common ground as negative, even violent tendencies among participants are being expressed in “a war with the bloodshed of real conflicts.”
But perhaps the most deeply penetrating part of Busca’s narrative comes when he’s addressing the problems with the isolated country.
Acknowledging the demonization of the Kim Jong-un regime in the press and admitting that sure, a lot of what’s being said may be true, the runner says it’s difficult to consider all the negativity when encountering the actual people of North Korea — and that if you do choose to condemn, then you should direct that condemnation toward those who actually deserve it.
“It is hard to travel there without having these kinds of reports in my mind,” Busca writes of the Hermit Kingdom, “but through my journey, I learned that even when we legitimately condemn a regime, we must keep the top of its political pyramid separated from the bottom.”
Then, in moments of almost stunning clarity — sad commentary on an age where reports of drone strikes killing civilians barely register a response from the public — Busca states what would be common sense in a sane world:
“A country’s people may be subjugated to the decisions of their government, but they have their own lives and values — and deserve more than being held to the same ethical judgments we hold their leaders.”
It must be noted here that the same logic should apply to the people of any and all nations.
If you truly believe Bashar al-Assad is an evil dictator who gasses his own civilians, then hate him – but don’t let that hatred spill down to the women and children who are being blown apart by bomb-dropping robots in Syria.
If you truly believe Saddam Hussein was a ruthless authoritarian who deserved to be ousted and eventually hanged, then run with that. But don’t for a second believe that the people in the streets of Baghdad had anything to do with the atrocities you associate with their country’s leader.
Even in the United States, where Congress’ popularity stands somewhere between cockroaches and herpes — and the sitting president is the most unfavorable of all time — the public feels detached and in disagreement with the government on many issues.
And if you choose to believe that North Korea is a nuclear threat to its surrounding neighbors, terrific. But try your best to not forget this one thing: The human beings living under Kim Jong-un’s rule play no part in the decision-making.
I’ll close here with one of Busca’s lines that echoes the feeling he started the piece off with: pain.
Because for many of us, the drone strikes do register. The innocent dead are felt. We didn’t know them, but we know they didn’t deserve to die. And so, their pain, and the pain of the loved ones left behind becomes ours. Or, as Nick Busca so truthfully states:
“By the 30km mark, it doesn’t matter what country you’re from or what kind of life you live: You just want it to stop.”