A North Korean holiday

Nick Bonner has the key to one of the worldÆs strangest countries.

During my conversation with Nick Bonner about North Korea one topic came up again and again. It wasn't nuclear missiles, the leadership of Kim Jong-Il or the country's Juche ideology. It was something much more prosaic, and it typifies his enthusiasm for the secretive state. It was football.

Bonner mentioned a North Korean football youth team that was currently in Beijing (a visit he had helped organise). Then he moved onto the North Korean women's team (one of the best in the world). And then there is his first documentary (a story about North Korea's success in the 1966 World Cup. But more on that later). In fact, football is what got him involved with the country in the first place.

Bonner moved to Beijing from England after a spell teaching landscape architecture at Leeds Metropolitan University. "I came to study landscape architecture and to teach at the forestry school here," said Bonner in his Beijing office, "but I found that most of China was being knocked down and replaced by brick and chrome. Ghastly!"

While playing football for the British embassy's team, he met a North Korean who told him that the country had a travel agency, but little access to Westerners. So Bonner set up a company, Koryo Tours, to bridge this gap. Fifteen years later he is responsible for taking half the 2,000 or so Western tourists that visit North Korea each year.

"People's preconceptions of North Korea are pretty accurate," said Bonner. "But it is a one-sided viewpoint -- you're only getting information from CNN, Fox News, and as much news as journalists can get with their very limited access to the country."

And as such, a holiday in North Korea meets most expectations: visitors enjoy little freedom to wander around on their own, there isn't much to buy and the food isn't great. But that doesn't stop it from being a once-in-a-lifetime experience, said Bonner.

On the plus side, there is a range of spectacular architecture, such as the Arch of Triumph -- like the French one, but bigger; the giant statue of the country's founder, Kim Il Sung; and the Ryugyong Hotel, which was supposed to be the world's tallest hotel but is still uncompleted 20 years after it broke ground. Another draw for visitors is the mass games, where it is possible to see
tens of thousands of people, performing in total unison.

There are some who believe that travelling to a country like North Korea is, in a way, supporting its government. Bonner admitted that the tourism he organises puts money into the coffers of the regime, "but in real terms it is tiny, it wouldn't even put a lick of paint on a missile".

Instead, the focus should be on the humanising effect that tourism has, said Bonner. "The tours are a massive learning experience for the parties involved, both the tourists and the locals. They go away with a much better understanding of what the other party is really like."

While the tours provide Bonner with the chance to reveal the human side of North Korea to the small group of people who do decide to go there on holiday, it is his other role, that of a film-maker, that allows him to share it with the masses.

Together with director Daniel Gordon, he has already completed three documentaries about the country, telling stories that are both offbeat and extraordinary.

Take their first film for example, the Game of Their Lives, the story of North Korea's role in the 1966 World Cup in England. The Italians were favourites to win the tournament, but their hopes were dashed when they were knocked out by the plucky team from the then little-known communist state -- the first Asian team ever to qualify for the World Cup. The North Koreans were eventually eliminated in the quarter finals -- after leading 3-0 -- thanks to a legendary performance by Portugal's Eusebio. They returned to their home country, never to be heard of again.

That is until Bonner and Gordon tracked them down, more than 30 years later, and brought them back to a triumphant return to the English town of Middlesbrough, where they originally beat the Italians.

"They received a standing ovation at Middlesbrough Football Club. The North Korean flag was even flying at the stadium and town hall! They also received a standing ovation at Everton Football Club. In all, more than 120,000 fans welcomed them 'home'," said Bonner.

Bonner's latest film is even more unusual. He is working on a Korean-language romantic comedy to be shot in Pyongyang. It will be about a coal miner who realises her dream of becoming a trapeze artist -- the working title is Comrade Kim Goes Flying. "I want to make a film that is accessible to both North Koreans and the rest of the world," said Bonner. "It'll be humorous and have an interesting take on personal dreams and relationships. And I think that will shock people."

With an Oscar-nominated producer on board, it's a serious project, but that does not stop Bonner from enjoying his work. "You couldn't imagine a more fun thing than to sit down with North Korean script writers: they are across the table shouting at you, so you think they're angry with you, but then you realise they're talking in character." He then pulled out his laptop and fired up a video of one of those meetings -- those scriptwriters certainly looked peeved to me.

The only problem with the project, Bonner told me as we left his office, is that it could take a considerable amount of time to finish. By the time we parted, he had already climbed on his bike. As he cycled away, he turned around and shouted something over his shoulder. "See you at the premier in Pyongyang -- in about 20 years!"

This article first appeared in the September issue of FinanceAsia magazine.

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