Phil Yao ’13 To Run Marathon in Pyongyang

Phil Z. Yao

UPDATED: Feb. 28, 2014, at 4:05 a.m.

Rhodes Scholars Phillip Z. Yao ’13 and Julian De Freitas, who graduated from Yale last year, have announced plans to run the Pyongyang Marathon in North Korea on April 13.

Yao and De Freitas said that they do not have political motivations for running the marathon.


“Our campaign focuses on promoting an active lifestyle,” Yao and De Freitas wrote in an email. “It is around this time of year that many people begin to break their New Year's resolutions, and we hope our getting up to run a marathon in North Korea inspires people to keep to their resolutions and to be more active in their lives. Our message is not political, and our run should not be seen as an endorsement of anything political.”

As of the last update to its website on November 19, 2013, the U.S. Department of State “recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea.”

Despite the warning, the duo explained that they decided to run because “the Pyongyang Marathon is open to amateur runners from all countries for the first time in its history.”

The two are running the marathon to raise money for the Anna Foundation, which “promotes education and physical activity among youth in rural areas of South Africa,” they wrote in the email. De Freitas, who is now studying experimental psychology at Oxford, is originally from South Africa.

“We felt that running a more dramatic marathon could help raise more money for the organization we are supporting, the Anna Foundation,” they wrote.

Yao and De Freitas are fundraising for the trip using Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing website. They have set a goal of raising $8,000, some of which will pay for the trip and some of which will contribute to the Anna Foundation. At press time, they had raised $1,079. The campaign ends on March 29.

The pair plans to travel to North Korea with the Beijing-based agency Koryo Tour which, according to its website, specializes in travel to North Korea.

Yao and De Freitas have been given “tentative approval” to film their run using GoPro cameras.

Yao, a physics concentrator and one of Fifteen Minutes Magazine's Fifteen Most Interesting Seniors of the Class of 2013, said his time at Harvard had prepared him to travel to North Korea, a place considered hostile to foreigners.

“Our universities have taught us in part that building bridges in a difficult situation can potentially be more effective than staying on respective sides of a river,” Yao and De Freitas wrote.

—Staff writer Harrison K. Wexner can be reached at