Tourism has grown markedly since Koryo Tours, the pioneer in Western travel to North Korea, started running trips there in the early 1990s. Koryo now takes about 2,500 people a year into the country – peccadilloes like Ebola quarantines notwithstanding – and has run a range of sporting and cultural trips into the country. Bonner even arranged for the film "Bend It Like Beckham" to be shown at the Pyongyang Film Festival one year. Just this year, Koryo has started offering train tours from Pyongyang to Chongjin, a major city at the northern end of North Korea’s east coast.
Cockerell just returned from his 143rd trip to the most isolated country on Earth. We asked him what changes he’s noticed in North Korea over the years he’s been going there. This transcript has been lightly edited for length.
The Washington Post: What has changed since you first went to North Korea in 2002?
Simon Cockerell: The emergence of a middle class, if you define middle class as people buying things they don't need. The Pyongyang middle-class is not going to be buying second homes and going on foreign holidays and that sort of thing, but people who just have money, disposable income, that's something that was very hard to determine some years ago. Maybe it was there and maybe it was just a bit more hidden, but it's certainly socially acceptable to have money now.
It's easy and lazy to say this is the elite, but you can't have an elite that is that big. Who's drinking in the coffee shops, who's buying these imported clothes, who's taking the taxis? It's clear that there are people around who have money. These are not the elites. These are people who can take a taxi rather than walking or paying a handful of won [North Korean currency] for the bus. So I think that's one of the biggest changes, but it's mostly in Pyongyang.
For tourists, the biggest changes have been more places to visit. The basic rules and regulations are still the same. You have to have an all-inclusive package, you have to have guides with you all the time, you can't wander off by yourself, there’s no couchsurfing or AirBnB, there are no real opportunities to use the Internet.
But there is a lot more you can do, and you can take photos in many more places now. There's been a gradual liberalizing but it's been a small change over a long time.
WP: To go back, you said it wasn't just the elites who had disposable income. But just by definition of living in Pyongyang, doesn't that make you elite?
SC: There are 2 or 3 million people in Pyongyang and you can't have a country which is 10 percent elite. It stops being elite. It's like having a limited edition of a million something. A true elite in North Korea would be a very tiny group of people, not this middle class, which must number in the tens of thousands at least.
WP: What kind of things do you see North Koreans buying? What's popular there now?
SC: People eating out is one thing and people, especially women, buying more stylish clothes. For the man there's still a tendency to dress a bit uniformly, but a lot of women in their 20s and 30s now dress in a much more stylish way than they used to. There are some designer labels, mostly knockoff designer labels I would've thought, but it's not unusual to see women in slightly shorter skirts and higher heels. Ten years ago, young people and kids just looked like smaller versions of their parents, and now they look a little bit different. In North Korea they never really had a generation gap before, but at least on the surface, there's a clear distinction now. But that's entirely aesthetics, and in one city, and even then in a minority of the population.
WP: Have you noticed a change in their attitudes? Have people become more open to you?
SC: Possibly yes but the sample size is so small. All the people we work with I trained to have a somewhat open attitude to foreigners, and even if they are not trained they have a vested interest in that. But I would say generally yes, there are more people encouraging the kids to say hello to foreigners. I've had plenty of cases now when people have asked to take a photo with me – though that's probably just from being a giant bald white guy. Although actually, after the Dennis Rodman basketball thing, that was on TV so many times and there was a shot of me and it's three or four times, so I was asked for pictures by people after that. That's something that wouldn't have happened before – probably because people didn't have cameras or phones to take pictures.
So I think anecdotally at least, the willingness of people to interact with foreigners is increasing. But it's still not that much. You still don't get anyone coming up to you and inviting you home for dinner or any of the other interactions that foreigners [in other countries] have with locals. For good and bad. You walk around Beijing for a day, and someone will try and sell you something, or attempt to scam you, or try to hook you up with some ladies. That's not a thing that happens in North Korea.
WP: Over the course of 15 years and 143 visits, have you been able to build relationships with North Korean people?
SC: Yes, I would say so. Obviously there's a lot of people I know and I always refer to them as my friends, but if you talk about true friends, people who you don't watch your mouth around or people you're comfortable sitting in silence with, then I would say that I have about two genuine friends in North Korea. We don’t have to just talk about North Korea all the time, it's not just professional. Then there are a lot of people that I get along well with and see frequently.
WP: How have you been able to build up this trust and build up the business?
SC: With repeat visits. They're business people, they're not the government, and they are mandated to seek profit for the company.
WP: But isn't this all through the Korea International Trade Company? And KITC is a government company.
SC: No, it's a state-owned company. We need to distinguish between the government and the state. They are two different things. One is a profit-motivated organization. The management of that company is mandated to seek profit and they make money through us. We are a high-performing company, we bring in a lot of tourists and we have shown the ability to pull off special events and expand the market, so I think we have a good professional record.
WP: So how have you managed to open new frontiers in North Korea?
SC: We did the first golf tour 11 or so years ago and started cycling tours three or four years ago, and we've done football tours, the first cricket match, ultimate frisbee, the first pub quiz. Sometimes these things get quite big and sometimes they're small, like the pub quiz. Nick organized the first darts tournament in Pyongyang.
WP: Were the North Koreans there?
SC: Yeah, a couple of them. He just had to tell him which way to throw it. And the same with cricket – we had to tell them which end of the bat to hold.
When it comes to opening up other parts of the country geographically, we always push for more. Sometimes it takes years and years to achieve something inconsequential. Getting access to Hamhung and Sinuiju took years and years of bothering people.
WP: One of the things that's really been puzzling me is all of the money that they've been pouring into the new Pyongyang airport and the new Wonsan airport. It seems like a big investment for a country with such a small tourism industry.
SC: Pyongyang airport doesn't seem that flamboyant to me because it's not that big. It's smaller than any airport I've been to in China. Obviously the economics are different in China, but with Pyongyang airport, I was concerned that it would be much larger and ostentatious. But it's not, it just looks like a regional airport.
WP: With a chocolate fondue fountain.
SC: Yes, of course there is some silliness there. It is bigger than it needs to be for the number of flights that they get, but it's not that much bigger. It's not like some regional airports in China which are monstrously big and never see any traffic.
WP: Let’s talk about the ethics of tourism in North Korea. There are plenty of people out there who say we shouldn't be giving money to the regime. What do you say to that?
SC: Well, you're not giving money to the regime. The money that the government takes from tourism is money paid in tax on the goods and services purchased by tourists. Plane tickets, train tickets, hotel fees, souvenirs, laundry, phone calls etc. These are all goods and services purchased from various companies. Assuming that those companies pay tax on the income, that money goes to the central exchequer and does what money does. It mixes around in the pot and then gets spent on what? Schools, roads, prisons, weapons, border security, doctors. Money is fairly fungible. Nobody wants to be paying for the bad things that the North Koreans do, the bad things that everyone knows about. But the money coming in from tourists is not enough to sustain them in power for five minutes.
I believe in the offset: This is exposing people to some kind of reality of what North Korea is like. Not the whole country, but some kind of idea of what it's like. And even greater than that, exposing North Koreans to foreigners who aren't caricatures off the TV, murdering families, or from movies about the Korean War. The benefit to me is very clear and it sits on one side. Tourism has not sustained the North Korean government for one moment, but what it has done is exposed an enormous number of North Koreans to an enormous number of foreigners, relatively.
It's ludicrous to assume that all of the money goes straight to the regime because it assumes that food is free, that fuel is free, that hotels are free. But these are businesses, they compete for people’s business.