'People's Hero' Runner Aims for Global AcclaimWhen North Korean Jong Song-ok won the women's marathon title at the 1999 World Track and Field Championships in Seville, Spain, she said, "I may be a new marathon runner in the eyes of the rest of the world, but hopefully they will know me now."
The world obviously wasn't listening, as Jong is still a relative unknown in world track and field despite her win. But a victory at the Pyongyang International Marathon April 15 could re-ignite global interest in the first Korean woman, North or South, to win a world marathon title.
In contrast to her little-known status abroad, Jong is a larger-than-life figure in North Korea. Her nation has showered her with honors and praise since her victory two years ago, thanks in no small part to her flattery of her country's leader Kim Jong-il right after her win.
She said at the time that she "gained strength" by thinking about Kim and that he was "the real source of her power." Soon after her win, her government made her the first North Korean athlete ever to receive the national award "Hero of the Republic."
More accolades flooded in. Last year, Jong was named to the North's legislative Supreme People Assembly and has had a commemorative coin and stamp minted in honor of her world title. Pyongyang is also using her as an example for its citizens to follow under a national "Be Like Jong Song-hui" campaign.
And the North seems intent on showing off Jong to the world in a bid to promote its system, says one official of South Korea's Unification Ministry.
A number of foreign diplomats in and visitors to Pyongyang last year paid courtesy calls at her home, including a high-ranking Chinese Communist Party official, the Czech ambassador to North Korea and a delegation from a U.S. labor union group. North Korean media says she is the most popular person to meet for foreign dignitaries visiting Pyongyang.
Jong will get plenty more exposure to foreigners at the Pyongyang International Marathon, an International Amateur Athletics Federation-sanctioned meet. The annual event was launched in 1981 to commemorate the 69th birthday of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung.
Resumed last year after an eight-year hiatus, the race was open only to men until 1984. In 1986, ordinary Pyongyang citizens were allowed to compete as well as athletes.
Total prize money offered in the event is $12,800, with $4,000 for the men's winner and $3,000 for the women's, a staggering amount in a country where per capita income in 1999 was only $714, according to the National Statistical Office of South Korea.
Kenyan Nelson Ndereva Njeru won the men's division last year and will try to defend his title this year. The women's winner was North Korean Hong Myong-hui, who was the bronze medallist at 10,000 meters in the Asia Track and Field Championships last year in Jakarta.
Fittingly, Jong may also bear the next generation of North Korean marathoners. North Korean media reported last month her marriage to the North's top male marathoner Kim Joong-won, 30. The couple received an "affection-filled" wedding gift from North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, according to Radio Pyongyang.
Kim Joong-won placed second in last year's Pyongyang International Marathon. He also won the Beijing International Marathon in October 1998, a bronze medal in the Bangkok Asian Games the same year and first place at the Macao International Marathon in December 1999.
by D. Peter Kim