Travelling Into North Korea - With Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours

Traveling Into North Korea - With Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours

North Korea is a perennial news highlight, but in 2012 the isolated country seems to stand at a crossroads. The death of Kim Jong-il and the ascendance of the former leader's heir apparent have pundits around the globe speculating the isolated country's next move. Will the change in leadership make the North Korean government more reactionary? Or will it provide an opportunity for the country to open up to new reforms?

These are the questions of the day for most of us who have little to no contact with North Korea on a daily basis, but for Simon Cockerell, General Manager of China-based Koryo Tours, there's no real concern of disruptions to business as usual. A British national, Cockerell has served as a tour guide into North Korea since 2002 and has worked closely with North Korean counterparts to bring an increasing number of visitors to the DPRK. In turn, Koryo Tours' staff has grown from a mere two to twelve, and the number of annual Western travelers with Koryo Tours has increased from 300 to 3,000 in the last ten years.

Traveling Into North Korea - With Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours

But there's more to Cockerell's story than just numbers. As he himself mentioned, "I'm lucky enough to have a job, that I'd do for nothing, and luckily I don't have to." Here's Cockerell's story as well as testimony about working with a North Korea we don't hear much about, one that's surprisingly cooperative and willing to work with expatriate professionals across the table.

AsianTalks: First, a couple of housekeeping questions. What brought you to China, Koryo Tours, and how would you describe your experience of working with North Koreans?

Simon: I've been working for the company since March 2002, so for 10 years now, the company itself has been running since 1993. It was founded by two British guys. The one who was running it when I joined, I knew him through this amateur football league in Beijing. He was looking for someone to work with him and seemed to think I might be the right person. So that's how I fell in with that crowd.

With regards to the North Koreans, we've been lucky to deal with the same people for a very long time. We work mainly in the fields of tourism and film. We've had the same partner in tourism for nearly 20 years, and the same partner in filmmaking since we started that, in the late 90s. So the key really is to find somebody you trust and to work with them, and we've been lucky enough to do that.

AsianTalks: Outside North Korea, we have very little knowledge of how businesses there operate. Do you have any insight into the country, especially in light of recent events?

Simon: We don't deal with the government, we don't deal with the travel company, we deal with specific people in everything we do. So really it's about cultivating relationships with them. I mean, after all, this is true everywhere. But this is particularly true in East Asia. And, it's even truer in North Korea. Your strength is the strength of your relationship with whom you work with.

And the people we work with are lovely. They're very, very nice. If they weren't we would work with somebody else. So it's mutually beneficial, both on a business and personal level.

Working with North Koreans is never boring. It's always interesting. But the highlight is, mixing with people as much as you can, and getting on with people on a personal level. I've been doing this a long time, and I've been to North Korea a surprisingly large amount of times, so I don't find it exotic to deal with North Koreans anymore. And some of the North Koreans are our very close friends, I like getting along with them, it's nice to see people grow in your eyes. A lot of the tour guides we had ten years ago, now they're in their thirties, so you watch people grow up, get married, have kids, and it's nice just to see a bit of normality there. Their aspirations tend to be similar to other people's.

The recent changes in North Korea don't really affect the way we operate, not yet anyway. There are a lot of people who claim to be North Korean political experts but that's easy to say. Whether there will be any substantive change there, and whether that change will affect us, we honestly don't know. But it is early days so we can hope things will get better for people there.

AsianTalks: And what's it really likes to go inside North Korea and see the country, albeit in a limited format, given the travel restrictions?

Simon: I think for the people who are going to North Korea anyway, for them it doesn't take bravery to go there, because it's not risky, but it's perceived as risky. But it's very safe. Safest place I've ever been to.
A lot of people do generalize about North Korea, but I think that's a result of - not much information coming out of the country. The state itself has a very warm relationship with foreigners. They're obviously a highly nationalistic culture. Their guiding philosophy of Juche is one of Korean unity, rather than communism or socialism. It's based upon race.

There is a list of places foreigners can go. This list expands every year. Sometimes lots of new places open up, sometimes very few. But it's certainly not possible for foreigners to go in and wander willy-nilly. There's not much flexibility.

But the popular idea that the government dictates where everyone goes is simply not true. Most of our tours are bespoke tours, where we send people lists of what they could do.

AsianTalks: Koryo Tours has also made films inside North Korea, including documentaries such as The Game Of Their Lives, A State Of Mind, and Crossing The Line, which was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2007. Could you talk about how your team received permission to film, and the bureaucratic hurdles you had to overcome?

Simon: Well one of our first films, The Game of Their Lives (2002), took about five years of negotiation to get permission. It's not a controversial subject, in fact, that film's been on TV in North Korea dozens of times. Everyone's seen it. Still, it took a long time to gain the trust, to make the connections.

The North Korean partner in the film production, we've had the same partner for all three films. But to gain their trust, to let you bring in your camera equipment, when they have no control over the editor the subject of the film after you take it out of the country, that's the first trust to gain.

And after The Game of Their Lives became a success in North Korea, a critical success, they liked it, they thought it was good, so on the back of that, we asked for permission to make the second film, which was about two girls performing in the Mass Games. We just asked for one actually, and they ended up providing two different families. Filming in people's homes, it had never been done before, so the film is really ostensibly about the Mass Games, and it's really about the lifestyles of people in Pyongyang.

AsianTalks: Your company utilizes translators or interpreters on your tours. How important is their role, and why must they go beyond just skimming the surface of explanations of North Korea?
Simon: Every group that goes to North Korea must have two tour guides, and it's easy to say they're minders or guards, but those are something else. Minders are people sent by the government, but they don't spy on you, they don't brainwash you, they just try to explain how tall something is, or what the Juche idea is. We pick the ones that we work with because, like anyone, some of them are very nice, some of them less so. But they are exceptionally fluent English speakers.

But depending on what language is needed, our North Korean counterparts have guides that speak Thai, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, French, German, all sorts of languages. So the people we get, they will direct the tour in the language as required, but they will be able to translate anything from Korean.

And the people who go to North Korea, it's not like going anywhere else, so they're really into it, they want to know the detailed explanations about complicated political concepts. And a lot of people, they read up a lot on North Korea, but still, it's fair to say most people know nothing before they go in. So to have a cooperative farm system explained to you, to know the difference between the army first policy, it requires a detailed fluency in English and an understanding of those issues. And that's what our translator-guides do.

So being a tour guide is hard! It's not just "Here's the Forbidden City," and "Let's go to a jade shop, where I get 20 percent of the money you spend." It's really a complicated job in North Korea and an important one.

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