An Englishman in North Korea ... Beijing-based Briton engages with hermit kingdom through tourism and filmmaking

Nicholas Bonner’s Koryo Tours took eight visitors to North Korea in 1993. This year, they expect 2,000

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 November, 2016, 11:04am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 November, 2016, 9:35am

To Nicholas Bonner, North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is not as isolated as most outsiders believe. Bonner, who runs Koryo Tours in Beijing and offers Westerners trips to North Korea, believes that engagement with North Koreans is an important way to connect the country with the rest of the world, through travel, sports, art and films. He spoke to Laura Zhou.

How did you first get connected to North Korea?

I’m a landscape architect and was teaching at Leeds Metropolitan University in England. I paid a visit to my friend who studied Chinese in Beijing in 1993. At that time, many North Koreans were studying Chinese in China too, and we met a North Korean and played football with him. I was the goalkeeper, and after a few football matches we became friends. And he went back to North Korea, and worked for a travel company.

North Korea set up tourism in 1987 but nobody came. At that time, Chinese were not allowed to travel. So he asked, “can you bring some tourists?” So we did, since then. In the first year in 1993, we had only eight tourists, and in 2016, we have about 2,000. Though the process is slow, we pioneered the tourism industry in the country.

In 1993 we began selling tours, and got very few people – some from Hong Kong but only a small group. Every two months we had a tour then.

Since 2000, we made our first film and we became busier – when Westerners saw a side of Korea that they’d never seen. The first film we made about the football team we showed to the world and even in North Korea it was popular, and people started to inquire about North Korea. We had the country to ourselves for almost 20 years until other travel agencies showed up in 2012 – it’s amazing that the whole country had only one travel agency.

Now in North Korea they have a way of professional business – they have a lot more companies and a lot of Chinese going there. You still have two guides from the North, but they are guides, not police officers, and they have a tourism college.

But we do more than tourism. Now we have a travel agency but we also have a studio. We believe that if you do tourism in North Korea, you should also be doing cultural engagement. So we also do projects such as football, sport exchanges, ice hockey, school exchanges, art books and art projects with North Korean artists. We also do humanitarian projects.

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We have 14 employees. None of us have travel agency training. We are all interested in Korea and through Korea we do these projects and help more people visit and get involved.

How did you do these cultural engagement projects?

The first exchange was a football match. Because of the first match, we progressed and gradually could do more and more, and now we work with the sports committee.

We just did kayaking in the river of North Korea from Nampo to Pyongyang. Things were like this – at the beginning you would say that you can’t do that in North Korea, but you can if you work with them. Slowly you will get permission and do things with them.

Another example is my first trip to North Korea – first Pyongyang, down to the DMZ and then Myohyangsan. But now we can go to the east coast and even now the west coast. It was my colleagues who managed to push to get them to open up things and do different activities there. Now you can travel fairly extensively in North Korea.

The biggest thing is to make people understand that there are people on the Korean side who are working with us and pushing their side. Because it is their side to require us to do something, it can’t be only us pushing the opening. We work with many Korean friends who also like what we do and are helping.

Tell us about your films.

We also made a documentary about a football team in 1966, when the North Korean team beat Italy in the World Cup. The next documentary was about two girls in the mass games. We were permitted to go to their homes and it was incredible and exceptional. Since then, I started to learn more about Korean society.

The next documentary was about four Americans who crossed the border from the South to the North. No one knew where they were or whether they were still alive or dead. We found two of them. That was a sensitive topic, a tough film to make, but they permitted us to do the film, and we made it.

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We just made a romantic comedy called Comrade Kim Goes Fly ing. That was North Korea’s first girl power film and it is popular. I wrote the story with some friends from North Korea and Belgium. It is a story about a girl who is a coal miner and wants to become an acrobat, but she’s too old and she’s a coal miner. How could she do this?

This film was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival, in North Korea and was also the first film about North Korea that was shown to a public audience in South Korea.

How did you persuade local officials to give your permission?

You need to understand that it’s [about] people. When people talk about North Korea, they usually think about red tape.

For example, in the football documentary, everyone knew that the team beat Italy in the 1966 World Cup, but the whole world said that they were sent to prison camps or arrested after they returned. So I wanted to find the real story, because all the footage from the World Cup showed the player scoring, but no one knew what happened to the team. No one knew if they were still alive. The last things about them that were heard was when they left Britain to go back to Korea.

The friend we played football with told us that they were still alive. It was really difficult, but as we got funding, in 2000 they permitted us to do the project.

The film is about football, but I did want to ask, were the players sent to prison camp after the match? I did want to know this, and they said okay. In North Korea, as long as you don’t lie, they don’t really mind too much. Our first film was quite successful, so we were then allowed to make the film about the mass games. That was much tougher. We were following two girls, and following the life of North Korean kids is sensitive. We spoke to their parents. The officials didn’t like the film, because they thought it was boring.

After so many trips to North Korea, do you see any changes?

Very subtle changes. From 1993 until now, if you have maps of Pyongyang, it’s virtually the same. But if you have maps of Beijing, 1993 and now, it is a totally different city. Everything has been rebuilt, or knocked down. Pyongyang is almost the same.

Some people say that travel to North Korea finances its government to do evil things. How do you feel about such opinions?

The government owns everything in North Korea, and there’s no private anything. That’s the first thing to understand. If you don’t want to give money, that’s fine, just don’t visit. But the idea of tourism supporting government is nonsense.

Another thing we need to understand is that we pay a tour company – they are not the government, they are a state-funded company. So they have their own people to pay and these people have to get training in college, take care of buses, and train their guides. They get money and they pay tax to the government. We are not paying the government.

Of course some of the money will go to the government, but you pay and you get engagement. And most of the money goes to the travel company which pays its taxes.

That’s also why I want to do more than tourism. Tourism is an easier way to make money for ourselves, but we love to do engagement projects.

If you could recommend one thing to do in Pyongyang, what would it be?

It used to be the mass games, but the last mass games was in 2013. Now it is the marathon. The Pyongyang Marathon started in 2014. Last year we took 600 Westerners there. During the marathon, you can run along the streets and touch people’s hands. If you start to slow, people come up to you and push you on. The streets were full of people. That’s engagement we can experience.

Koryo Studio and Slovenian photographer Matjaz Tancic will hold an exhibition of 3D photographs – 3DPRK – at Pekin Fine Arts in Hong Kong from November 19 to January 7.