By Tamsin Bracher
Travel interview Nicholas Bonner, co-founder of Koryo Tours – an independent tour company which aims to educate tourists about some of the world’s least understood countries, including North Korea
How did you become interested in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)? Could you describe your first trip to the country?
I was initially trained as a Landscape Architect and came to Asia as a lecturer on sabbatical to look at Chinese and Japanese architecture. Historically, Chinese culture filtered into Japan via the Korean peninsula and I, therefore, jumped at the opportunity to visit North Korea in 1993. My friend had worked there for a year and a North Korean friend of his was in the tourism business, which started taking Western tourists to the country in 1987. But the problem was no tourists were actually visiting, so in 1993 I stopped lecturing and set up Koryo Tours.
On the Koryo Tours website, you describe your mission “to facilitate responsible tourism” and to encourage “people-to-people engagement”. In what ways do you achieve this?
Our structure is designed to make sure our tourists are travelling with knowledgeable people. We are a team of 12 who book and lead the tours – we are not set up as a travel agency where you have a sales team and are then sent on a package. Our staff are primarily interested in Asia and North Korea, and the high level of tour leading comes from that passion and expertise. As we are all in and out of Korea regularly, we develop a great bond with our North Korean colleagues and can, therefore, identify opportunities to mix with the locals as much as possible. After that, it is up to the individual tourist.
We have ongoing humanitarian and cultural projects which range from filmmaking to sports
As part of our commitment to engagement we also have ongoing humanitarian and cultural projects which range from filmmaking to sports. These ventures are two-way, informing the west on North Korea and vice versa. For example, while our BBC documentary on the lives of two gymnasts involved in the 120,000 crew Mass Games performance was made for a western audience, taking the feature film Bend It Like Beckham to North Korea (the first ever western film broadcast around the country) was clearly aimed at a local audience.
In an interview with Lucy Horner for the Financial Times, you said that “just taking in tourists is […] not enough. Tourism should be part of a process of improvement and not a zoo tour”: what experience do you hope to give people who go on one of your tours?
This comment was related to responsible tourism. I believe that any travel company interacting with North Korea should do more than simply run tours in and out of the country with profit as their main motive. North Korea opened up to Western tourism only in 1987 and it is one of the very few avenues available to build upon projects year after year and foster engagement. We meet so many Koreans who want contact with the outside world and have 25 years worth of projects that vindicate the true value of engagement.
Everyone we have taken into the country rates it as one of their most amazing and unique travel experiences
We make sure that the tours are observational and that hopefully, you travel with as few preconceptions as possible. Ultimately, the rest is up to you: some people hate the place and some people love it. But for the majority of people, it raises more questions than answers. Everyone we have taken into the country rates it as one of their most amazing and unique travel experiences.
How has your own interaction with the country developed during the last 24 years of your involvement? Has your perception of the DPRK and its people changed significantly?
Our interaction with North Korea has moved in little steps – from small-scale projects (such as bringing in Middlesbrough Women’s Football team to play two local teams) to filmmaking on a large scale. Without years of building up trust and relationships it would never have been possible to shoot Comrade Kim Goes Flying, a film made primarily for a North Korean audience. It is their first ever girl-power film and became the first North
Korean film to be shown to a public audience in South Korea. One of my best moments was when a member of the South Korean audience asked at the Q&A “It’s nice to see that Mother-in-Laws in the North are the same as they are in the South”!
There are ‘Friendship’ groups that operate trips to North Korea as well, although these are often not referred to as ‘tours’. This is not what we offer – we’re not supporters of DPRK politically and we are careful not to take a political position on issues related to the country: our mission is to facilitate learning, experiencing, and interaction. And this is crucial for both sides – foreigners and Koreans – in order to gain an understanding of the simple fact that human beings populate the societies so often portrayed in the macro-impersonal sense by the media. Monolithic ‘North Korea vs the West’ presentations ignore and gloss over the wider complications – that there are human populations on either side of the bigger issues, the vast majority of which have no control over the disagreements and are further painted unfairly as part of the problem by both sides.
Our mission is to facilitate learning, experiencing, and interaction
We also have ongoing projects that can be described as humanitarian in nature. We have provided playground material and food assistance for orphanages, solar-powered ovens, refitted a paediatric operating room, to name just a few examples.
We don’t see humanitarianism as being political (although we know that some do of course) but instead as a responsibility to do what we can to assist those in need, rather than simply comment on them from the outside. As the market leader, the company is very often imitated by others and we hope that this serves as an example. Some companies have a tendency to ‘exoticise’ North Korea rather than humanise it, whereas others do good work in generating better understanding and so on. This is how we see tourism as a beneficial force. Being apolitical doesn’t mean not having an opinion; it rather means understanding that there are differences, not excusing them, and providing information rather than living in ignorance.
Some companies tend to ‘exoticise’ North Korea rather than humanise it
General Manager of Koryo Tours, Simon Cockerell, describes how “Koryo has always been an apolitical company”; given the significance of politics in North Korea both domestically and internationally, what obstacles do you need to overcome so as to achieve this ethos in its true sense?
Politics infuses so much of life in the DPRK – it is everywhere. Mentions of the Leaders are both constant and ubiquitous. This is something that tourists experience for a short while, and that locals experience all the time. It shapes society and is one of the hardest things to get past. Knowing and learning about the political ideas of the country and how people feel about them is important, but it is not necessary at all to agree with them. We have never found pressure from our partners in the country to go along with political aims, to pretend to be something we are not, to commit to anything that we don’t believe in. We have a business relationship with our partners and not a political one which is helped by the fact that they are not a ministry but are instead a company, with the same motives as all companies in the world (profit, expansion, competition for market share — relatable things to the outside world).
What do you think the graphics showcased in your latest book ‘Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life in the DPRK’, can tell us about the country? Is there anything that makes the design aesthetic unique to the DPRK?
Monolithic ‘North Korea vs the West’ presentations ignore the wider complications
Even in comparison to China in the early 90s, North Korea was isolated from the world and that isolation created graphics that have a certain individuality. No internet access, no foreign design magazines — all that was available was perhaps occasional images gleaned from foreign magazines and represented by State organisations in an acceptable form. Very few designers would have travelled outside the country and there would have been no influence from international art movements. All that was allowed was traditional art (Chosunhua), propaganda or socialist realism. And yet despite these
limitations, North Korean designers showed enormous talent and great variety in their work – looking for innovation while using traditional designs. I love how the historical colours and patterns specific to Korea are mixed with socialist-style graphics.
To present a well-known Korean landmark — a mountain, a building or sculpture — on a packet of cigarettes, or a box of matches, is to imbue them with instantly recognisable ‘Korean-ness’, thereby making them, in their eyes, ‘the best’ — even in the absence of any competition. Places of revolutionary importance, ancient or mythical, and areas of natural beauty, all appear on different products, lending each item an aura of special significance. Graphically, this means that a simple line drawing can convey a level of importance far exceeding its aesthetic decoration.
Since the North Korean economic changes in 2002 (encouraging a slight tilt towards market reform), more and more foreign goods are arriving in Pyongyang and design is now influenced particularly by the cheap, flashy and low-cost Chinese products available. Funnily enough, the end of the era was marked by the arrival of their red-labelled hourglass shaped ‘cola’ bottle (remarkably similar to a certain American model). Since then product graphics have become much more like the ubiquitous glossy designs you find on cheap mass-produced goods anywhere in the world.
Do you think the way the DPRK is presented by Western media is problematic? If so, how can we educate ourselves further about such an enigmatic country?
Further isolating a country that has its own policy of isolation always surprised me
Certainly, journalistic restrictions mean that Western media only tells one part of North Korea’s story. I believe that by visiting North Korea you will have a greater ability to understand both the country and its political situation, even if it is from a limited viewpoint. Koryo Tours has practised responsible tourism for 25 years and our wide range of projects, from filmmaking to sports exchange, are testament to this approach.
In my mind, the ignorance of one another that is propagated by both the West and North Korea is dangerous. Further isolating a country that has its own policy of isolation always surprised me, particularly when you can see what a concerted and continuing input of soft power could have done (I witnessed this in China and saw how it influenced a number of people to think outside the box). The intention of this book is to show people a small section of North Korea: even if it reveals something banal, it is something that we can draw connections with – to inform people there is more to the country than simply the black and white view we are limited to.
Photographs: Nicholas Bonner and Koryo Tours