FEATURE: Packing up to Pyongyang. Dan from Hermitage Green is off to do a marathon in North Korea
Legend has it the late Kim Jong-Il could run 26 miles in 10 minutes, so Dan has a lot to live up to.
Hermitage Green released their debut album, wowed crowds in venues across the land and even did an impromptu gig at a college house party in 2016, but one of their members is about to embark on arguably an even more ambitious project.
Thousands upon thousands of people run marathons every year, but not too many do so in Pyongyang, the capital city of North Korea, one of the most isolated countries in the world.
In April 2017, Dan Murphy, singer and multi-instrumentalist with Hermitage Green, will return to a country he finds “captivating” and “fascinating” to partake in a race that only opened to international runners in 2000.
It also starts and finishes in The Rungrado 1st of May Stadium, the biggest stadium in the world with a capacity of 150,000.
JOE recently caught up with Dan to chat about his experiences of North Korea, his preparations for the race and just how much he can’t wait for the pub crawl in Pyongyang that will follow afterwards.
JOE: First things first Dan, why North Korea?
Dan Murphy: I suppose it's a country that has always captivated me. It's very unique in the sense that the general public are quite educated to an extent about science, philosophy and sometimes even politics, but in contrast to that they're completely oblivious to the world around them.
I’ve been to North Korea once before and it is the most isolated country in the world. There are little token things that we would take for granted, particularly with culture and popular culture, that are so different there.
For instance, I had a t-shirt with Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley on it and our North Korean guide came up to me – this is a woman with a Masters degree in sociology and impeccable English, a very educated woman – and she said to me, "who are these people? Are they Bollywood actors?"
That's the quintessential North Korean experience for me, there's something fascinating about people who are in some ways part of quite a developed society, but on the other hand they're totally oblivious to the world around them. I've always found that compelling.
JOE: Before you went there, had you any preconceived notions of what it was going to be like and how did your experience differ from what you might have expected?
DM: For me, the regime that is running North Korea and its people are two separate entities. And it’s the people I am interested in. North Koreans live by a philosophy called 'Juche'; they have no religion, but they try and live by this philosophy that preaches family values and education.
One of its main tenets is not to have greed or envy for material objects. If I'm talking to you about a car I want or an extension on my house, that would be seen as a nasty, superficial trait and they resent that sort of behaviour.
It's unbelievably peaceful on the streets of Pyongyang. North Korea is a socialist country and they're all paid the same wage, so you don't have people legging it out the door to get to work every morning. You get this pretty relaxed vibe.
As a result, they don't have high crime rates either. Our Australian guide was explaining this to me and I was saying that surely that’s because of fear of consequences? He said that you could argue that, but a lot of people believe it's because of their attitude to material objects.
We got to talk to enough people on the streets and in shopping malls and bars. They appear to be happy and live very peaceful lives where everybody has the same basic level of salary. That's all I can say really. Anecdotally, from my own personal experience, that's what I witnessed.
I have read about the poverty and, whether this is true or not, it isn't something you will see in Pyongyang. I’ve travelled a lot around Asia, to places like Nepal, India and China, and Pyongyang is one of the cleanest most peaceful cities I’ve been to in that part of the world.
JOE: Are there many restrictions placed on tourists during their stay in North Korea?
DM: There are in a way. Everywhere you go you've got a government official with you and they have certain places they like to take you. There's kind of a route.
You could say it's very contrived and the whole thing is staged, but it's more that the government just want to make sure you get the best experience of their country and you see things of interest to you that are going to paint North Korea in the best light.
I personally didn't look at that in a sinister way. I have also been asked by a couple of people, 'do you feel guilty going in and parading around this country that has human rights violations and all sorts of dark history?'
Basically, my answer to that is, we're breaking down barriers by going into this country. We are challenging our own misconceptions while also giving North Korean citizens a different perspective of Western society.
JOE: Did you get to interact much with the locals on your last visit?
DM: I have a friend who went to North Korea for the first time five years ago and he said that back then, the locals wouldn't look at you in the street because they were terrified. They'd look at the ground as they rush past you, either because of what might happen to them or what you might do to them because they had grown up with all this crazy propaganda about the West.
Those misconceptions are now starting to disintegrate a little and it’s a direct result of international tourists being allowed into the country for the first time. Any of the locals we met were friendly and curious and Koreans have a notable wittiness about them too.
I could draw a comparison, North Korea at the moment is a little bit like Cuba; they're saying, "get into Cuba before Starbucks do next year". North Korea is now in a phase where it's very safe and the people are friendly, but it's still isolated and odd enough that you really want to go in there and get a look at something unique before it gets sort of watered down to an extent.
JOE: You still hear stories about locals being quite sheltered though. For example, there were reports during the last marathon in Pyongyang that some of the participants had to teach some of the locals how to do a high five...
DM: Yeah, there are lots of stories like that. There's a couple of the old propaganda posters floating around Pyongyang that are quite entertaining, like a photo of the North Korean soccer team holding up the World Cup. It’s becoming less and less frequent that you kind of come across that stuff. As I mentioned, it is becoming slightly more watered down. Even Kim Jong Un - as much as the press might vilify him - he's considerably more liberal than his father Kim Jong Il.
JOE: As for the actual marathon itself then Dan, how fit would you say you are for it?
DM: I run about twice a week at the moment. I'm 93kg so I don't think I'll be breaking any records in this marathon! I've got some friends who work in strength and conditioning and they're going to put together a programme. I'm planning to really hit it hard in January, two or three long runs a week. I'm just looking forward to it; it's something different.
I've boxed for years, but I don't do that competitively any more. I still love to keep fit and I go to the gym which I think is important, particularly for what we do in the band. I'm just looking forward to trying something new.
JOE: This isn’t just any old marathon either; running into the Mayday Stadium is supposed to be spectacular…
DM: Our Australian guide that I was with in North Korea the first time told me that, if I get back again, it has to be for the marathon tour. I'm not a runner, but even for people who aren't runners, it's meant to be one of the best weekends of the year to get in and see Pyongyang.
Runners from all over the world descend on the city. You've got a pub crawl after the marathon to celebrate and the Mayday Stadium that the route finishes in is the biggest stadium in the world. Twice the size of Croke Park!
There's a great buzz around and the tour itself still takes in all the must-see sights of Pyongyang. We even take a trip down to the infamous Demilitarised Zone, the heavily-guarded border between North and South Korea, dubbed 'the tensest place on earth'.
It's enormous and it's going to be packed to capacity. A lot of the North Korean citizens would never have seen a tourist or foreigner in their lives so for them it's a massive spectacle. It's going to be an utterly strange and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
JOE: There’s quite the sporting pedigree in the band, to be fair, with you having done some boxing and kickboxing, Barry’s rugby past and Darragh Graham having been a sprinting champion.
If you were all to compete in a modern day version of Superstars, who would come out on top?
DM: Definitely not me anyway! My family are all rugby players and my earliest memory of playing rugby was like, fu**ing a ball away in the wrong direction and having 14 lads looking at me saying 'what are you doing?'
Individual sports suited me better. If you make a mistake in a boxing ring you get clipped for it, it's your fault and you suffer that alone; you don't have this responsibility of pissing off a whole team of lads!
To answer your question, Darragh Graham has been of a jack of all trades; he's a sprinter, he plays football, he's played rugby in the past, so I'd begrudgingly have to say him.
JOE: Finally Dan, any personal targets? Word on the street is the late Kim Jong-il ran it in ten minutes without having done any training at all!
DM: He was on roller skates! I honestly don't have any targets, I'm just going for the experience. It’s my first marathon so I would just like to finish it and not get injured.
If I can drag my 93kg frame over the finish line and enjoy the pub crawl around the tea houses and micro-breweries of Pyongyang afterwards, I'll be a happy man.
If you would like to join Dan, Global Village Tours are offering tours of Pyongyang, incorporating the marathon, with 3-day, 6-day and 11-day options available. For more information, check out globalvillagetours.ie.