When it comes to jobs that raise eyebrows, Nick Bonner’s line of work is up there with crocodile wrestler and organ procurer. As the founder and director of Koryo Tours, the 50-year-old Englishman makes a living guiding tourists into the world’s most isolated state — North Korea.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it and if I didn’t love the people,” he said. “If I wanted the easy option, I would be doing tours to Hawaii.”
Bonner’s life path was not paved in advance. Having studied landscape architecture in the U.K., he planned to be a countryside ranger. But a visit to Beijing in 1993 at the invitation of his friend Josh Green, leading to a friendship with a North Korean, changed his future.
“We played (football) with him and became mates, and he was going back to North Korea to work for the tourism board,” Bonner recalls. “He said, ‘We need Western tourists. Do you want to come?'”
Green and Bonner gathered a group of eight pals and entered the Hermit Kingdom. “It was an eye-opener,” said Bonner, who was drawn to both Pyongyang’s cityscape and its inhabitants. (The latter is something visitors to the North often remark upon — the unsophisticated, old-fashioned charm of the populace.)
Sensing opportunity, Green and Bonner founded Beijing-based Koryo Tours that year. Although their Pyongyang contact greased bureaucratic skids, business was slow, so Green and Bonner decided to open “Poachers,” Beijing’s first live music nightclub. Green then departed, leaving Bonner as the sole operator of Koryo.
Bonner was subsequently contacted by British documentary producer Dan Gordon, who was fascinated by North Korea’s 1966 World Cup squad, which had beaten Italy, a world power. Bonner helped out Gordon by tracking down members of the team.
The pair went on to produce the film “The Game of their Lives” (2002). It screened worldwide and earned the aging North Korean players a return trip to the U.K.’s Middlesbrough football stadium, the site of their triumph, and they received a standing ovation.
The film and its follow-up, “A State of Mind” (2004) — covering two Pyongyang gymnasts preparing for the Arirang mass games — not only put a human face on the “axis of evil,” they also put Koryo’s name on the map. Tourist numbers swelled and Koryo found itself in the black.
Bonner reckons he has taken over 12,000 tourists in, largely Europeans, Southeast Asians and North Americans. Most trips visit Pyongyang, Nampo, Kaesong and the demilitarized zone, and there are special short tours solely for the Arirang mass games. Koryo also runs trips to Mount Baekdu and Hamhung, North Korea’s second city.
Special interest groups who have traveled with Koryo include the Middlesbrough Women’s Football Team, ultimate Frisbee players, a cycle tour and even cricketers. Bonner has also taken in Lonely Planet’s Tony Wheeler, and worked with National Geographic and the BBC.
Contrary to popular belief, unscripted and surprising meetings with locals are feasible.
“I remember one tourist was at Kaesong and a load of soldiers marched past and I said, ‘Wave at them,’ and he did, and this battalion stopped in its tracks and waved at him,” Bonner says. “Now, you meet people who are learning English on the metro.”
Though Koryo has expanded to Central Asia and Russia’s Far East, for Bonner himself, North Korea remains the focus, where despite its grim reputation, his customers have never faced untoward incidents with officialdom.
“The only problem we had was an American tourist who said, ‘I want to show them how free I am,’ and he went off for a walk on his own in Kaesong,” Bonner recalls. “The guide said, ‘It’s a pity he has wasted his money as he has already made up his mind about our country.’ The maturity was shown by the Korean guide.”
Koryo has also been un-buffeted by the political winds blowing across North Korea.
“Tourism remains fairly steady. We have never got to a situation where things have been halted,” Bonner said. “Since 2002, a U.K. embassy has been open in Pyongyang and they never have said, ‘Don’t come.'”
As he insists that his tours are non-ideological, what is his response to those who allege he is helping fund an odious regime?
“Tourism requires legal channels for doing business. You don’t have it in war zones, so it requires North Koreans to set up a structure to deal with the outside world and I think that is very positive,” he says. “People will disagree, but it would be difficult to further isolate the country and I think engagement is a better policy; non-engagement has not worked.”
Bonner’s company is one of a handful of non-Chinese foreign firms to successfully do business in North Korea, an economy in which glacial change is under way — several Western consultants and entrepreneurs are now active in Pyongyang. There is even a pair of Italian-invested pizza restaurants.
“I have never been cheated by North Koreans, though we deal with relatively large amounts of money,” Bonner said. “There is tremendous trust; it has been easy to develop and continues to develop.”
Given his positive experiences in Pyongyang, Bonner was shocked to discover early this year that his Web site had been firewalled by Seoul. He flew here, but after speaking to the Broadcasting Standards Commission, discovered there was nothing that could be done.
“We seemed to be classed rather seriously. I don’t think we are undermining the South Korean government,” he said. “We do not take South Korean tourists in, but what does hurt is we have been making films to show people a glimpse into a closed society.”
Still, the meeting seems to have had a delayed effect. In November, once again, without communication or explanation, the firewall on Koryo Tours was removed.
That has proven to be a relief. Bonner’s latest project film is not a documentary, but a (currently untitled) North Korea-based romantic comedy about a coal miner who dreams of being a circus performer, filmed in Pyongyang and the surrounding region. It’s now in post-production. South Korea will be a key market.
“Making a fictional dramatic film in North Korea is the best you can ever do, the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “This is a creative process, you are dealing with writers and artists and actors.”
As co-producer, co-writer and co-director, Bonner hopes it will be the first North Korea-produced feature to enjoy wide international exposure.
And that contributes to his mission. “We believe in engagement,” he says.