Interview with Nick Bonner: Touring North Korea

Travel Interviews: Cullen Thomas talks to the founder of Koryo Tours about his fascination with North Korea and providing tours to the land of Kim Jong Il

08.13.09 | 10:30 AM ET

Nick Bonner on Mt. Paekdu

For a place customarily viewed as an enemy, an antagonist and a bizarre anachronism, North Korea showed a different side with the release of the two imprisoned American reporters, whatever one makes of it. And what do we make of it? How do we reach a better understanding of what is perhaps the most inscrutable country in the world?

Englishman Nick Bonner can shed some light. He is the founder of Koryo Tours, the longest-running travel company providing tours to North Korea. Teaming with director Dan Gordon, Nick has also produced three acclaimed and fascinating documentaries about the country (The Game of Their Lives, A State of Mind and Crossing the Line). There are few Westerners with his experience and insight into the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I reached Nick via email at his office in Beijing.

World Hum: I know you’ve been to North Korea many times over the past fifteen years. What was it about Pyongyang that so captured you on your first visit in 1993?

Nick Bonner: I trained as a landscape architect and had a fascination for this mysterious city. On arrival it fitted what I imagined and more—wild architecture, stunning monuments, big museums and one of the most beautiful cities in this part of Asia—high amount of green space and two beautiful rivers. It’s not what one would have imagined. And on top of all of this a very different system to anything I had ever known.

How did you develop the trust and a close enough relationship with the North Koreans to gain the amazing access that you have, as seen in the films you’ve done and in your working relationship with Korea International Travel Company, the North’s state-run travel group?

We have worked with KITC for 16 years and over this time have brought in over 8,000 tourists and developed trust as a business partner. We help them develop new destinations and train new guides, but more important is the fact that many of these people who we have known over this period of time have become firm friends.

We have worked with them to open up new destinations in North Korea: flights to the birthplace of the Korean people (and the revolution) at the volcanic mountain of Mount Paekdu; homestays in the Chilbo Mountains, trips to the temples in Haeju; swimming on the east coast at Wonsan; and, of course, the DMZ, the division between the North and South of Korea—without missing Kaesong, the only city that was not flattened in the Korean War.

You must get some curious folks wanting to visit.

One U.S. citizen came all the way from the States just to ride the double corkscrew roller coaster in Mangyongdae Funfair, and one English bloke just wanted to eat in all the revolving restaurants in Korea. There are more than you would think!

I know you’ve been consulted for your local knowledge and experience by Rough Guides and Lonely Planet, among others. You took Tony Wheeler to the top of Mt. Paekdu on the North Korean-Chinese border, one of the most sacred and mythical places for Koreans. What do you remember from that trip?

Tony is quite a character. We were up in Paekdu and as we traveled along the roads they were being hand built by massive work teams. It initially looked rather worrying, these very tough labor-work gangs, and we questioned what was going on. We drove back for lunch and came out to see the sports pitch of the hotel heaving with people. Tony and a group of tourists went over and were asked to join in one the most amazing “friendship” matches with over 20 people per side.

Occasionally you would spot a rather beat up football, but most of the time was spent joking with the Koreans in sign language. And it turned out that these were the builders of the road. They said that they needed to do this as the roads were becoming impassable and the people have to take responsibility because of the sanctions of foreign countries, that they were short of machinery and if we want good roads we have to build them ourselves. If there is one thing you learn about Koreans it is that they are extremely proud people. No matter what the reason, just meeting the people in such a way is one of those rare opportunities and moments of understanding for both sides.

In your films and elsewhere it seems that you and Dan Gordon make a point of clearly stating your objectivity when it comes to discussing, portraying or presenting the DPRK. Does your work with North Korean authorities require a neutralizing of your own politics or turning a blind eye? Or are you just naturally given to that objective, nonjudgmental outlook?

With the films we make and with the tourism you have to have an objective point of view or you learn nothing and just reinforce the stereotypical responses, having your preconceptions of the country confirmed without looking outside the parameters. We have certain information on the country but there is an enormous amount that we do not understand and that should in some way be looked at. Making documentary films has given people the opportunity to see the Korean people in a different light.

What would you say to critics who may contend that you are at best willfully na´ve in promoting North Korea as anything less than a bizarre and oppressive tyranny, and, less generously, even helping in some way to keep the status quo in a dictatorship.

The DPRK is still one of the least visited countries in the world, so this may be rather over estimating the impact of tourism there. We believe very strongly in engagement. Since 1945 the West has worked on very few policies to engage with North Korea on a cultural level. We have shown by example what can be achieved and have the support of the various Western Embassies in Pyongyang to continue our engagement. If being na´ve represents lack of experience, well we have more experience than most, and as for lack of wisdom, or being duped, I think the projects we have worked on with our Korean colleagues are testament to the effectiveness of engagement and understanding.

We do of course acknowledge the work others are doing in Korea. However, our specialty is engagement and I believe there is a place for this and that it is under represented. The results of not listening or engaging are very apparent in the world.

What is the greatest misconception Americans in particular have about North Korea?

I think understanding. We have found it very difficult to broadcast our films in the U.S. A local in New York knows about as much about North Korea as a North Korean in Pyongyang knows about New York. There is a great lack of information which allows one-sided views to remain unquestioned.

How has business has been affected this year with all the tense developments on the peninsula?

Blips in relations with the West have been going on since we started running tours in the DPRK. There are times when you are listening to the rhetoric from either side and you would think tourism would be impossible, but we have always led tours no matter what the climate. And a tour in North Korea has to be one of the safest destinations ever. In Pyongyang people get on with daily life. Currently they are working towards the celebrations for the centenary of President Kim Il Sung’s birth (2012) and that is going to be a big event.

What do you make of Bill Clinton’s mission to Pyongyang to free Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the imprisoned reporters for Current TV?

It is a bit like landing on the moon—one small step. Except in this case Americans have visited many times from Carter to Albright, but there hasn’t been a lot of follow up. Perhaps Obama may be different.

Soccer seems to be playing a constructive role in your work and in terms of exposure and meeting purposes. Do you see a potential for greater Ping Pong Diplomacy, for sports and cultural exchanges?

We have shown our film “The Game of Their Lives,” about the North Korean football team of 1966 who created the greatest shock in World Cup history by beating the Italians, in both North and South Korea. Both sides loved the film. As a DPRK soldier at the DMZ told me, given time “we will play as one football team and then we will be unbeatable.”

Since I have been in DPRK I have seen so little in the way of cultural exchanges. The biggest events were when we took the 1966 North Korean team back to the UK, where they were welcomed by 120,000 football fans, and they filmed the event to show the Korean public back home. And their reaction must have been “What? Westerners applauding our countrymen? How strange. How heartwarming.”

There was also the performance by the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang, which we were involved with in a very small way. But it had a great impact on the Western world as much as it did internally. It is not much of a record of diplomacy and it is evident there is so much more to do—sport, educational exchanges, language teachers, etc. If governments were truly interested in change one would think there would be a lot more resources being placed in this direction and not merely sanctions.

Can you talk about the romantic comedy you are filming with North Korean actors and crew?  

We are hoping to start shooting in December. If that does not kill me then nothing will. We will keep people updated on Facebook and our newsletter and I think the making of the film will be one heck of a ride. Think revolutionary coal miner who wants to become a trapeze artist. But how does she accomplish this? With a script like that how can we go wrong!

Editors’ note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Cullen Thomas is the author of the memoir "Brother One Cell," a 2008 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Salon, GQ, and the Washington Post.

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2 Comments for Interview with Nick Bonner: Touring North Korea

Sanya Travel 08.14.09 | 6:17 AM ET

Touring North Korea must be a real adventure!

Jennifer Barclay 08.14.09 | 7:50 AM ET

Nick Bonner seems a really nice guy from this interview, and I admire what he’s doing. As usual, though, I want people to remember that travel in South Korea is equally fascinating—and the regime is a safe, happy one for the people who live there, who are allowed to interact with you properly because they live in a free democracy… People are understandably fascinated by North Korea but please consider supporting the free and liberal country to the south! I spent three wonderful months travelling around the country…

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