Skyscanner speaks to Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours, who has been visiting North Korea for more than a decade, to get the inside story on life and travel within the world's most secretive state.
1. How long have you been running trips to North Korea and how did it all start?
I’m the General Manager of Koryo Tours and have been since I joined the company in April 2002. Our company has been running tours to North Korea since 1993 so this year sees our 20th anniversary. It started when Nick Bonner (our founder) knew a North Korean chap who he played football with in Beijing. The Korean fellow suggested Nick and his friends visit him in Pyongyang on a tour and this was the genesis of our company.
Since then we have been the preeminent company taking Western tourists to North Korea. In addition to regular tours we also run school trips, sports trips (if anyone has a sports team who would like to play in North Korea they should get in contact), and have been instrumental in opening up new areas of the country to tourist visits.
2. Has North Korea changed since you started the tours?
Yes it has, slowly and over time, but there have been some changes. The introduction of a form of market economy several years ago would be the major change we have seen but in terms of tourism we have seen many new parts of the country, from remote mountain areas to large industrial coastal cities, open to tourists. We continue to press for more access to other parts of the country as well as to the capital city of Pyongyang which has been undergoing a large construction spree over the last few years and now parts of the city are utterly unrecognisable from just five years ago.
3. What would you say to those who believe North Korea should be boycotted due to alleged human rights abuses and the totalitarian regime?
We would disagree with this. We believe in constructive engagement with North Korea and that exposing the maximum number of Koreans to the maximum number of foreigners is worthwhile and can only help to humanise both sides in the eyes of the other.
After all very few North Koreans have interacted with foreigners and very few people from outside the country have ever met any North Koreans. It’s easy to be blasé about the perceived ‘enemy’ when you have never set eyes on the people but less so when you have been somewhere, even for a short time, or spoken to, played football with, danced with, been on a funfair ride with, waved to, someone from that place.
Then you see that the vast majority of the 24 million people living in North Korea have nothing to do with the issues that make the international news. It is interaction with these people that we try to promote as much as possible. However it is of course true that interaction with the locals can be hard to pull off and that much of a tourist itinerary does involve visiting sites of tourist interest, however what Koryo Tours specialises in is striking a balance between these, and putting our clients at ease and enabling and facilitating the most interesting and in-depth experience possible.
This is what 20 years of experience and a great many personal visits (I have been there 119 times myself) bring to the tour. While tourism is still very restrictive we have had success in opening up new areas of the country to foreign visitors and going out of the capital and as far into the country as possible is something most visitors find very worthwhile.
4. What sort of travellers is North Korea most popular with?
It's popular with a wider range than people might expect; from those who have been everywhere else, to people living in East Asia who would like to see what the fuss is all about, to the adventurous travellers looking for a story to one-up their friend’s tales of Thailand, to the simply curious traveller.
It's surprisingly easy to get to North Korea, you simply send us passport details and we take care of the rest, and almost anyone is allowed to go. US citizens make up about 25% of the Western tourists who visit for example. Tourist companies are not permitted to take visitors on South Korean passports or journalists on tour, other than this the country is open to anyone wishing to visit, and we’re glad to take in anyone eligible who may be interested in going on the most unique trip of their lives.
5. How much of the ‘real’ North Korea can a visitor see and how much is hidden from view?
It’s a difficult question to answer with total accuracy; the common view held before an actual visit is that all of what tourists can see is part of some elaborate Truman Show-style performance with actors walking the streets and a fake subway built just for a handful of thousands of visitors over the last decades.
For the conspiracy-minded visitor claims that events such as retired peoples' weekend dances (which tourists can join in, often being dragged in by socially lubricated old-timers) are all staged provide a cross between entertainment and validation of their views. However, it’s clear to most visitors that what you see on a tour is real life, but not the totality of real life across the country.
By this I mean that tours to North Korea, whether group or individual, do not go to the deepest, darkest, most difficult parts of the country – however what people do see on the trip is a cross-section of life around the areas that they can visit (from the relatively well-off Pyongyang, to the large industrial cities of the north-east coast, countryside areas, and mountainous parts of the country too) and from that and what most people already know about the country you can extrapolate what other parts unseen are like.
We assume the intelligence of our clients to be aware that it isn’t possible to experience the whole range of lifestyles on a tourist trip to a country but also that visitors are able to understand that what they see and experience on our tours is a genuine thing.
After all if the North Korean government was that bothered about arranging everything so perfectly to fool every tourist then why did they arrange for school kids to look so shocked when you greet them in Korean?
Why did they plant picnickers who got so drunk they fell asleep in their food in a Pyongyang park? Why is everyone so bad at bowling at the bowling centre? We believe that people should visit with a healthy level of scepticism and be aware that much of what is taught in the North Korean system (and then presented to visitors) is starkly at odds with what we learn outside the country, but also people should be open-minded enough to be ready to experience a bit of unexpected reality on the tours, this way, more can be gained from the experience.
Truth in North Korea is an elusive beast and we certainly don’t promise total awareness of all aspects of the country to all tourists, however every visitor will come away with a life-changing experience, stories that their friends will hardly believe, and a deeper understanding of the most enigmatic nation in the world today, even if more questions than answers remain.
6. What are visitors to North Korea most impressed by, and most shocked by?
Generally people are pleasantly surprised by the level of access they can get, however limited it may be. People’s expectations are usually very low so when they are exceeded this is what surprises people the most. The fact that it is possible to interact with local people, that they can do things like attend a local football match, film festival, picnic area, bar etc is often unexpected and a pleasant surprise.
I don’t think that tourists are genuinely shocked by anything much though – pretty much everyone we take has done some reading beforehand (it’s not the kind of holiday that people just blunder into!) and knows a lot about the place and this definitely benefits the group dynamic as everyone then has something in common and a shared interest and some fascinating conversations with the tourists and the guides and other Koreans along the way, this is one of the highlights of the trip actually.
The fact that local people are not mindless automata is a positive discovery to most tourists; it’s hard to see people as being independent and individual beings if the only exposure you have of them is TV footage of mass parades and rallies (events designed specifically to subsume individuality into a more impressive mass) but every pixel is a person, so one of the great benefits of visiting is to interact with as many of the local people as possible, to experience the variety of opinions and feelings that North Koreans (like everyone else) are capable of, and to try and get a handle on this frustrating, elusive, country through as much as you can experience in a limited time.
7. What do North Koreans think of their Western guests – specifically Americans who tend to be on the receiving end of their most harsh criticism?
I don’t know of any cases of tourists not being made to feel welcome. Even Americans who many people would expect to have a hard time there. People in North Korea are perfectly capable of distinguishing between a government and its people and its very common indeed for tourists to introduce themselves to locals as being from the US to be told that the person they are talking to doesn’t like their government (a commonly held view in North Korea) but has no problem with Americans as people.
This is reassuring and goes against the common view of North Koreans as so violently anti-American that it can’t possibly be safe for US citizens in the country. In fact Americans often get more out of a visit than most other nationalities once you add in the frisson of going somewhere that many people don’t even believe can be visited.
Some of the best moments on the tours are discussions with tour guides about the relative merits of different policies and systems from around the world and I have hardly ever met any North Koreans who weren’t curious about foreigners and what their loves are like. It’s fair to say that the vast majority of North Koreans have almost no idea what the lifestyle of a foreigner is like, and so while they may be reticent at first people are often quite approachable and curious to interact, even if just for a photo, or a high-five, or something brief like that.
8. Do every day Koreans benefit from visitors (either financially or non-financially), and is tourist money all funnelled to the government?
It’s often claimed that ‘all’ money paid for a tour goes to the state, but this is not true. Goods and services carry costs in every country and North Korea is no different, tourists consume food, fuel, electricity, man-hours, etc all of which have to be bought (and have profit mark-ups for the organisations selling them of course) and some of these things (fuel, hotel rooms) can be comparatively expensive in North Korea.
The company we work with inside the country is not part of the government although it is state-owned (like everything there) and state-ownership and state control are different things of course. This organisation operates with a profit-motive and remits taxes to the government (although income tax is not collected in North Korea there are what we might call corporation taxes) so this is the part of the fee that ends up with the government.
Tourism does not prop up the government of North Korea, tourism isn’t responsible for any of the actions of the government other than a gradual opening to foreign visitors. The people of North Korea don’t see tourists as pawns or sympathisers either so going there doesn’t imply any political ideology on the part of the tourist.
There are people who benefit and make their living from tourism, and increasing amount of people in fact – anyone working in a tourist hotel, any of the restaurants or shops frequented by visitors, performers and various shows, tour guides, tour company employees, beneficiaries of the various charitable causes that we have supported over the years – all of these people gain benefit and most importantly, it's the way this cash trickles down to their dependants (everyone in the country who has access to hard currency has a lot of dependents and people they support) so we do encourage good tipping of tour guides for example as the money all flows in the right direction and helps to support a lot of people who have very limited funds.
We do have clients who get in touch after the tour looking to help support some charitable initiatives in North Korea and are able to connect them to some of the essential projects going on.
9. Will North Korea ever open up to allow free travel to tourists?
We hope so. More access, more freedom to visit, to stay in different places, to interact with different people etc can’t help but benefit all sides. We hope for this and in the world of North Korean tourism things are moving in that direction but ever so slowly and ever so incrementally. We live in hope though and one day this will happen!
For more information visit the Koryo website, and to keep up to date about any changes in North Korean tourism rules and regulations, sign up to the Koryo Tours newsletter (drop an email to email@example.com) or visit the Koryo Tours Facebook page. All pictures courtesy of Koryo Tours.
Read more: North Korea (DPRK): Hidden Countries