Running is New Brighton man’s key to North Korea

Thompson, a sprinter, found himself running a 10K race in North Korea in early April. Here, he stands before thousands of North Korean spectators at a Pyongyang stadium.

Thompson holds the gold-plated cup and saucer that was given to him for his birthday by a North Korean tour guide.

Outside the nation’s capitol, farmland fills much of the scenery. Thompson describes the methods used in North Korea as ones that might have been used in the U.S. in the late 1800s. The country has a history of famine and hunger for those living outside the capitol.

North Koreans gather in a central square in Pyongyang as part of the days-long founder’s birthday festivities — the same celebration that recently showcased North Korean missiles.

Lowell Thompson, 78, now back at his New Brighton home from his trip to North Korea, holds a memento from his time in the isolated East Asian country: the shirt he was given to race in.

One way to get to North Korea is to simply run there. Recently, that’s what a New Brighton man did to unlock the doors to one of the most inaccessible countries in the world.

Lowell Thompson, 78, spent a week within the borders of North Korea, the small authoritarian nation in East Asia, well-known for political oppression, silence and occasional missile tests, failed or otherwise. 

It’s a communist regime that intermittently pops up in the news — alongside its autocrat Kim Jong Un and various human rights abuses — and it did so again quite recently in a bellicose way, while Thompson was there celebrating his birthday.

It wasn’t his birthday that brought Thompson there, however, but a marathon festival in Pyongyang, the nation’s capitol. 

Getting there

Thompson’s son-in-law, John Van Meter, who lives with his family and works in Hong Kong, called Thompson to see if he had any interest in taking part in a 10K race in Pyongyang. 

Being a sprinter with a number of state records in his age bracket, Thompson was still unsure if a 10K would suit him, “but it worked as an excuse to get into the country,” he says. 

He notes he’d never even considered going to North Korea, but at the invitation, he felt like it was an opportunity he didn’t want to pass up. 

Thompson and a group of mostly non-Americans crossed into North Korea over the Yalu River from China, then chartered a plane to fly to the capitol. 

“It actually wasn’t all that difficult,” he says, noting that it wasn’t too costly either. “It would have been more expensive to go to Hong Kong or New York City for a week.”

Thompson was in North Korea from April 7 to April 14.


Becoming a runner

Thompson turned to running at the age of 60, after roughly two decades of working as the community services director for the Metropolitan Council and then another two decades as president of Voyageur Art, an art publishing business.

Upon finding more time on his hands, he decided to enter the Senior Olympics. He didn’t have much running experience at that point, but remembered being pretty fast while growing up in Stillwater. After success in several races, he decided to make sprinting his hobby. 

“Sprinting has been really fun for me,” he says. “The adrenaline really flows on the track.”

So how was running a 10K?

“Well, I typically don’t run races more than 200 meters, but ... I finished,” he chuckles. 


Birthday racer

Thompson says the races — the 10K and half and full marathons — took place in a large stadium in Pyongyang and on the city’s streets.

“The stadium was filled with 50,000 people,” he says. “Now ... I’m not sure if they were there because they wanted to be or because they were told to be.”

He says the crowd was wearing mostly dark-colored clothing and cheering loudly for the runners, who were there from dozens of countries. 

Thompson celebrated his 78th birthday in North Korea with several small parties, one of which was thrown by a government official, he says. 

“They really respect their elders there, I’ll give them that,” Thompson says, explaining he received several gifts from people, included a small gold-plated cup and saucer from a North Korean tour guide.


What was it like?

Thompson says he spent most of his week in Pyongyang, but says stepping into the country itself is like stepping back in time, especially outside the city. 

“The countryside is just like what the US countryside was like in the late 1800s,” Thompson says. “They farm everything all by hand there, with no mechanical equipment.”

In his entire time in the country he saw only two farming vehicles, which were outdated Russian tractors. Most of the farmers, he notes, had very hunched backs and couldn’t stand up straight because they planted everything in the ground by hand. 

“It really was like going back in time,” Thompson says. “It’s so isolated, and not a very nice place for the citizens.”

He says he was allowed to take pictures — some of the time — and that the photos were looked over before he exited the country. 


Would he go back?

With President Donald Trump recently saying tensions with North Korea could become a “major, major conflict,” would Thompson choose to go back? 

Yes, he says, he would.

When asked how his family felt about his recent trip — with all the news of North Korea’s posturing and its general hostility to the outside world — Thompson says his two stateside children were worried, but his daughter in Hong Kong felt more comfortable about it. 

Thompson’s wife, Barbara, who passed away last year from stage four colon cancer, would have wanted to tag along too, he thinks. 

“We were married for 54 and a half years,” Thompson says. “And she had a spirit of adventure. She probably would have said ‘can I go along.’ The answer, of course, would have been yes.” 


Jesse Poole can be reached at or at 651-748-7815. 



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