Springtime in North Korea – come for the Mangyongdae Cup, stay for the nuclear testing

Kim Jong Un (AP)
Kim Jong Un (AP)

With the world still trying to figure out if North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's threats of nuclear conflict are the precursor to an apocalypse or the rantings of a madman, you might expect things to be somewhat tense in Dennis Rodman's favorite rogue state.

Yet even though not a day passes without Kim flexing his military muscles and predicting doom for both his sworn enemies to the south and those mischievous imperialists in the United States, his attention may be somewhat diverted for a while by a sports event of impressive magnitude.

The Mangyongdae Cup will begin this weekend, an Olympic-style spectacle that has previously featured up to 40 different sports and includes athletes from overseas, as well as from each province of North Korea.

The writers of official releases of the nation's state media agency have occasionally gotten caught up in the natural enthusiasm that accompanies moral superiority and indulged in some minor embellishment – as well as reporting strictly factual accounts of political importance like the 31-under par, five hole-in-one effort of Kim's father Kim Jong-Il a few years back.

However, there is evidence that the Mangyongdae festival is just as spectacular as suggested and will commence with a lavish opening ceremony this weekend. It will include competitions in soccer, volleyball, basketball, wrestling, judo and field hockey, among other sports.

The high point, however, is the annual Mangyongdae Prize marathon, a race that carries full international recognition from the International Association of Athletics Federation and was won last year by Ukraine's Oleksandr Matviychuk.

"When you are out there on the course it is like any other race," Matviychuk told the inquisitive Ukrainian press when he returned home. "It is actually a really good race, well organized."

While a full participation list has not been released – the state agency has presumably had other things on its mind recently – it is believed that racers from Ukraine, Kenya, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe will compete.

"I think enthusiasm for the upcoming tournament is running high among local marathoners and their coaches like never before," Sports Ministry spokesman Ham Chang-hyok said, according to the Korean Central News Agency.

The race will start in front of a capacity crowd at Kim Il-Sung stadium before winding its way along the picturesque Taedong River and past several of Pyongyang's significant sites.

Kim Il-Sung is the reason for all the celebration. Kim Jong-Un's grandfather would have turned 101 this weekend, and this time of year is routinely used for good, fun, patriotic stuff like sports, dancing, military parades and nuclear tests.

The good news for fascinated tourists is that dispite the shaky standoff between the U.S./South Korean alliance and Kim's regime, travel to the region is still possible.

Two tour groups contacted by Yahoo! Sports have taken groups of Americans to Pyongyang for the Mangyongdae festivities, and will witness the marathon and other events.

"We are still doing tours," said a New Korea Tours representative. "There are a lot of interesting things to see and the trips are very popular."

Take your running shoes.

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