I’d never really given much thought to North Korea, but in 1993 I met someone from Pyongyang while studying in Beijing. I played football with him, and we became friends. After he went home he wrote to another friend of ours saying, “I’ve joined a travel company but there are no tourists coming. Would you like to?” North Korea had only opened to the west in 1987 so basically no one knew you could actually go.
I loved to travel, so my friend and I got together a group of mates and we went over later in 1993. That was my first trip to North Korea, and it made me decide to stay in Beijing and set up a travel company for other western tourists.
In a funny way my first impressions of Pyongyang were very positive. The architecture may be brutalist, but there are also incredible fairy-tale landscapes, two big rivers and lots of green space. You only slowly become aware of how North Koreans live. It was a very tough time in 1993, when the Arduous March – a particular period of famine and struggle for North Koreans – was just coming on.
I don’t really come across the government in my work although they’re aware of what I do. My company deals with the Korea International Travel Service; it is government-run but it works in its own sphere. You’re limited in your interaction as a tourist but if, for example, you go during the Mass Games – the annual festival of gymnastics and dance displays – you’re interacting in some simple way with people from the countryside as well as Pyongyang. The very fact that I’ve got you into those places means I’ve done my job. You’ve got to start somewhere.
I’m aware that North Korea is not a system I’d perhaps like to live in. But one thing I believe in very strongly is engagement. My very first North Korean friend, the one I played football with in Beijing, said that the isolation was like being covered in a layer of dust – it was difficult for him to reach outside, and no one was reaching in. Somewhere along the line that has to stop.
When I started Koryo Tours all you could see were the big sights, the revolutionary museums. Now there’s a lot more to do and our access has opened up to the east coast and Mount Paektu – sacred to many Koreans. So it’s increasing, but tourism like this is still very new.
The most immature response I’ve had was from someone who went in saying: “I want to show them how free I am in my country.” You’ll learn far more by asking a guide how they met their husband or wife than by arguing politics. Critics might point out that these are privileged people from Pyongyang – I don’t care, they’re still people. Journalists are really restricted of course, but you’re certainly learning more about North Korea by seeing the place and you’ll come out with a damn sight more questions.
I once took Tony Wheeler, who started the Lonely Planet guides, up Mount Paektu. We spotted hundreds of people building a road by hand – it looked like forced labour. But later we saw a few of them taking a break for a netball game. They told us that times were tough, but that they had decided to build a road because they needed one. Tourism sometimes gives you an unexpected perspective.
In 1996, I also started making documentaries about North Korea. The first one revisited the country’s 1966 World Cup football team, which caused a sensation by beating Italy. The match was played at the Middlesbrough ground so we brought the Middlesbrough women’s football team over. The authorities wanted them to just play the game, but the team wanted to meet people. Suddenly there was a bunch of Middlesbrough lasses running around and kids streaming from all over the place to see them.
I’ve just released a new film, a co-production called Comrade Kim Goes Flying. It’s not a documentary – it’s a girl-power movie about someone wanting to become a trapeze artist. It’s pure entertainment, but it’s actually North Korea’s first film about a protagonist fulfilling their dreams as an individual. So you can take from that what you like.