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Debunking Panorama Paranoia: North Korea Tour Leader Simon Cockerell

Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours on what it’s really like to visit North Korea.

Jonathan DeHart

Last week BBC caused a furor in international media when word got out that its reporter John Sweeney, posing as a PhD student, entered North Korea undercover with a group of students from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Sweeney was sent to the North to report for the prime-time BBC program Panorama.

Most media reports focused on the potential danger to students posed by Sweeney’s ruse, while at least one in the Huffington Post underscores the fact that Sweeney’s covert reportage could have put North Korean tour guides in a perilous position.

Aside from verifying what is already widely known about North Korea – it’s poor, it’s tightly controlled, military presence is always close at hand – reports tend to offer only skewed accounts. Hence the rife misconceptions about what North Korea is like – especially amid recent tensions – and the media’s grossly simplified portrayals of the local tour guides who bridge the nation with the outside world, albeit in a limited way.

The Diplomat recently spoke with Simon Cockerell of North Korea tour operator Koryo Tours in Beijing. In this interview, Cockerell shares his observations on what it’s been like to be inside North Korea in recent days, the intricacies of tourism to the nation and the humanity of its misunderstood tour guides. He describes a very different experience to the one Panorama presented.

For perspective, how many times have you been to North Korea?

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I’ve been to the North 119 times, starting in April 2002, and my most recent visit was last week.

What were your thoughts on the recent BBC Panorama episode that was covertly filmed in North Korea?

I thought it had its interesting moments, and Professor Myers always provides good analysis, but it’s unclear to me what benefit was gained from the reporter actually going on this trip to discover the ”real“ North Korea. The parts of the program where he was in-country making comments seemed to undermine the rest of the program. To anyone who is even slightly experienced as a DPRK-watcher these parts were very lightweight indeed.

The revelations that tourists in North Korea have their movements restricted and that the country itself is poor and frequently has power cuts are hardly earth-shattering bits of news. Likewise, observations that some markets have little produce or that building crews work through the night seem simply like filler; and a 30-minute show should not need filler. Nothing was shown in these parts of the program that would not be seen by every single visitor to North Korea.

On a side note, an interesting analysis of the program can be found here.

What would be the repercussions for a North Korean tour guide if a journalist is caught sneaking in with their group?

First let me to distinguish between a guide and a tour leader. When I go to North Korea with a group then I am the tour leader. This is someone who accompanies the group in and out of the country from outside. The guides are the locals hired to take the group around, along with the tour leader. The guides are responsible for the actions of the tourists in their group in the country. They are not, however, responsible for the applications for visitors’ visas. This task is handled by those who arrange the trip, meaning that any problem involving someone suspiciously entering the country would likely be the responsibility of the visa agent.

The guides in the tour shown on the program (Panorama) are fine, by the way. They are still working and I saw them personally when I visited North Korea last week. They were not shown saying anything out of the ordinary and the reporter – other than the raw fact of being a reporter – didn’t get up to anything wildly illegal in North Korea. The scene where he “escaped” from the hotel near Nampo showed him clearly within the hotel fence line. This isn’t really an escape after all. It’s being in the hotel grounds in a part that most people don’t go to – hardly escaping.

What would the consequences be for a Western tour leader if a journalist were caught sneaking in with their group?

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Basically none on the spot. I know that there are cases of guides realizing halfway through the tour that they had journalists on their tour. The guides aren’t stupid after all. But there isn’t going to be any action taken against a tour leader on the spot. Again, the responsibility for who is taken in on a tourist visa lies with the organization that supported the visa in North Korea and the people who applied for it.

Many companies hire tour leaders for their tours who aren’t at all responsible for the applications. For example, Koryo Tours staff members both arrange and lead tours. Hence the fact that our tour leaders all have a high level of expertise and are more deeply involved than the leaders at some other organizations.

Have you ever had any issues while escorting tourists through North Korea, such as being detained, interrogated or fined?

No, never, not once. This is one of the most common questions we have from prospective tourists. We have run thousands of tours over 20 years and we have never had anyone detained, questioned, molested, ejected or arrested. I can state unequivocally that it has never once happened to anyone on one of our tours.

Some tour organizing companies have been blacklisted for a while but the North Koreans don’t publicize what the reason for this may be, nor do the companies of course. Again, the responsibility for tourists who enter North Korea lies elsewhere, with the visa companies and agents.

Still, it goes without saying that North Korea isn’t the kind of place where a tourist should act in a way that they know can cause problems for people on the ground, the local staff or the company that invited them. This is taken seriously in North Korea and while we would like to see the country open for journalists’ unfettered access this isn’t the case at the moment.

What was the atmosphere like on your recent trip? Did you notice anything out of the norm?

No, I expected more tensions but there were none to be experienced, despite the claim on the BBC program that you could “feel the tension rising” there were really no differences to all the other visits. We did see a lot of soldiers, but then you always see a lot of soldiers. Mostly we saw soldiers planting trees in a new park area on the edge of Pyongyang – not exactly war preparations.

Atmosphere though is a pretty subjective thing. If you need to feel tensions for the purposes of a television documentary then I’m sure you can feel them. But the present reality on the ground is that for tourists and general visitors everything remains the same as before. We have had tourists travelling all over the country this month and all sites remain open as before, with the exception of the huts that straddle the DMZ, which are closed to tourists right now. However, these huts are UN controlled.

But we weren’t taking tourists to any places that you would expect to be on higher alert, such as military bases or missile sites, to begin with.

Did you have a chance to speak with some ordinary North Koreans during your recent trip? If so, did they speak at all about the recent saber rattling?

Opportunities to interact with locals are limited, but it can be done. On my last trip I spoke with a 73-year-old man who had just completed the Pyongyang Marathon (the oldest runner) and he said his two sons were front-line soldiers (it wasn’t clear if they were officers) who were ready to defend the country. He was quite passionate about them and very proud of their position at the front.

Also an American tourist and I went to one of Pyongyang’s parks where we drank some local liquor with a picnicking family. When I told them he was from the U.S. one lady told him quite sincerely that she hates America, but added that the people she has met from there (he may have been the first) seemed very nice. This is a common sentiment expressed by people in North Korea.

KPA (Korea People’s Army) officers at the DMZ all claim they are ready for war, but universally say it is not the choice of their side if and when it will begin. Most people I spoke to didn’t think that any conflict was going to happen. They have all lived through periods of high tension. This isn’t something new for the people of North Korea.

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Were guards or North Korean tour guides any stricter or more watchful than usual during your most recent trip?

First, I should distinguish between guards, guides, and minders. These are terms used interchangeably in much media reporting, but are in fact different things. The people who guide our tours are tour guides, or employees of the national travel company, which is state-owned but is nevertheless a company. To call them government representatives because they work for a state-owned company is not accurate. You would think the BBC would be aware of this given their situation! Minders are government staff members who work for the foreign ministry, for example.

I know a lot of tourists’ stories get hyped up by claims that the government has agents on the tour in the form of the guides but this is simply not true. But it is an easy mistake to make. The mandate for the tour guides is broader than for their counterparts elsewhere though. They stay in the same hotel as the tourists, they don’t go home during the trip, and they are responsible for the actions of the people on the tour during the trip. They are basically the moms and dads of tour groups during their stay.

Some of them are stricter than others, but I haven’t found the guides to be any stricter during recent tensions than before.

Do media reports typically portray North Korean tour guides in a fair light?

Very rarely are North Korean tour guides presented as anything other than a kind of Gestapo-like presence in the media. The tour guides we work with are not government agents. They are human beings with varied back stories, families and opinions of their own.

Some of them are very nice people, some are funny, some are very serious, some are more doctrinaire than others. Just like anywhere else. A disservice is done to them in most media reports by not attempting to find out more about them as people and using them as the translation resource that they can be to learn more about the country rather than seeing them as the embodiment of the North Korean state.

This is a monolithic and inaccurate view of who they are and what their role really is. However the media doesn’t thrive on nuance so the way they were represented in the recent BBC program was hardly unique or unexpected. They are just like people everywhere to be honest, not the automatons presented often in the news.