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When Michael Palin did North Korea: fixer and travel agency co-founder on 30 years of taking visitors into the country

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Josh had the task of setting up courier company TNT in Pyongyang, and that July, I and six other friends travelled to Pyongyang by overnight train from Beijing, a 23-hour journey; not a great distance covered, rather just a slow train.

At that time, Beijing and the border city of Dandong were rather bedraggled and Pyongyang’s tree-lined boulevards, ice rink, 105-storey Ryugyong Hotel and so forth seemed rather grand in comparison.

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It had the feeling of somewhere “very different” and I was intrigued, but it took a number of trips just to find out how very different it really is.

The Chinese like to say it reminds them of old China and Cultural Revolution times, but North Korea took a very different trajectory.
(From left) Josh Green, a military guide and Nicholas Bonner in Pyongyang in 1995. Photo: Nicholas Bonner

Beautiful game

Josh and I realised there was a niche to be filled, launched Koryo Tours and set about building up numbers, soon reaching a heady 100 tourists a year.

We were the market leaders as nobody else was running regular tours, although it was more a case of no one realising you could actually travel there than no one wanting to visit.

We made a travel documentary with British broadcaster Andy Kershaw in 1996 and that put the destination on the map in a small way.

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We had already started doing aid work with orphanages and a blind school, and film seemed like another good string to our bow, so, in 2002, together with Daniel Gordon, we made our first documentary, The Game of Their Lives, about the North Korean football team who knocked out Italy and became the first Asian team to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup, in 1966.
Nicholas Bonner (left) with Andy Kershaw in North Korea in 1996, during the making of “Travelogue”, the first travel documentary about the country. Photo: Nicholas Bonner
Nicholas Bonner with Ri Chan Myongy, the North Korean goalkeeper who, in a 1966 World Cup match, kept Italy from scoring. Photo: Nicholas Bonner

Point of contact

Korea is all about contacts and trust and building these over time. Failure to do this leaves little foundation to build on, as many politicians can testify.

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It is not a question of handing over brown envelopes, but more of developing a professional relationship that benefits both parties while making sure you do not compromise your Korean partner.

All companies are state-owned and pre-2002 we were happy just to plod along. There was a hierarchy in the areas I worked in – film and art at the top, sport in the middle and tourism lowest in the pecking order.

After a shift in government policy in 2002, which made earning foreign exchange a priority, tourism jumped up a few notches.

Nicholas Bonner at a screening of the 2021 North Korean romantic comedy “Comrade Kim Goes Flying”. Photo: Nicholas Bonner

Model citizen

A visit to North Korea is not a holiday but it is probably the most exciting and intense experience you can have, short of jumping out of a plane without a parachute.

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We have had a number of tourists who we have had to pull back from making criticisms, as this causes problems for the guides. It is not worth trying to convert the guides as they simply repeat what they are trained to say.

On a farm visit one tourist complained that it was not a real farm, so we had to point out that we had said it was a “model farm”.

It only needed him to see that this “model farm” was in a pretty bad way – mainly manual work, oxen instead of tractors … If this was the best they had to show tourists then you get an idea how tough it can be further down the line.

Nicholas Bonner (third from right) during the filming of “Crossing the Line”, a 2006 documentary about James Dresnok, a soldier who defected from the US Army in the 1960s. Photo: Nicholas Bonner

Amazing opportunity

Essentially, North Korea is a trip to embark on with few preconceptions – you just need to sit back and observe how the Koreans tell the story.

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It is also, if you are personable, an amazing opportunity to actually speak to North Koreans about matters outside politics and to be allowed to enter into their personal feelings – how they met their wife, what jobs their parents did, how they came to move to Pyongyang from the countryside and so forth.

The long run

About 10 years ago we got into the marathon business. Originally, only elite runners were allowed and we wanted to make it more inclusive.

Nicholas Bonner, dressed in running attire, outside the Pyongyang Foreign Bookstore with the shop’s manager. Photo: Nicholas Bonner

In 2013, (Koryo Tours general manager) Simon Cockerell and I organised a 5km (3-mile) fun run and the authorities saw the potential.

We were given permission to join the Pyongyang International Marathon in 2014 and brought in around 100 runners; in 2019 we brought in over 1,000.

The event itself is well managed but behind the scenes it is pretty tough going. Negotiations with the sports committees are not for the faint-hearted.

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In 2019 we were told the evening before that the course would be altered – this goes against all the rules and we ended up in heated arguments until 4am.

We managed to reverse the decision, but were run ragged before the start.

Bringing Palin

We were heavily involved in the 2018 travel documentary Michael Palin in North Korea. It took over two years to set up: a recce with the director, convincing Korean colleagues to trust us, and then bringing in the crew and equipment.

Palin is remarkable. He’s got a journalist’s mindset – one take was enough for almost all the pieces to camera, and, of course, his personality immediately relaxes people.

However, he takes his job seriously and that meant asking sensitive questions, for example, quizzing the guides about how they could possibly view their leaders without criticism, and debating with a DMZ guard which side had started the Korean war.

Friends indeed

As for so many other people around the world, Covid was a disaster for us. We thought it might last six months, then a year, and then every year one more. Perhaps I should have given in, but we are in contact with our Pyongyang colleagues every week and it is more than a job; it is our vocation.
Nicholas Bonner in 2005 with Charles Jenkins and James Dresnok – two American servicemen who defected to North Korea. Photo: Nicholas Bonner

We critically engage with North Koreans and have done for 30 years – and it would be unfair to desert them as there is very little there even at the best of times.

Joint venture

We established Koryo Studio to concentrate on cultural projects. Taking part in the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale was a big win, as the joint Korea Pavilion was the first such collaboration between architects from both halves of the peninsula.

I was also pleased with the reception of our book, Made in North Korea: Graphics from Everyday Life in the DPRK, which was published by Phaidon in 2017.

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Its content was exhibited in London and in Seoul – the first time that everyday North Korean objects were allowed to be shown in public there.

Pyongyang to Tuscany

I am now working on setting up a space to show Koryo Studio’s art and graphic collection in Tuscany.
I chose Italy rather than the UK as my partner, Antonia, is Italian and I disagreed strongly with Brexit – working first-hand in one divided country is quite enough! Tuscany is also the home of academic art, which is the sort of training that North Korean artists go through.

I bought two derelict industrial sheds in Colle di Val d’Elsa, which suits the theme, and the city is renowned for papermaking – many of our pieces are ink works and posters on paper.

The collection consists of over 3,000 pieces of art and graphic material as well as film, photography and catalogues. The art celebrates the valour of labour, and for all of its kitschness that is something to celebrate in a world that’s heading a little far to the right for my comfort.

Article was originally published from here

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