Behind the scenes in North Korea

For many, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a mysterious place, but two Englishmen know the country well and have even made a film there.

When it comes to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Simon Cockerell and Nicholas Bonner have been there, skied the prestige-project resort (Masik Pass), made a “feminist” propaganda movie, Comrade Kim Goes Flying, and dealt with the ensuing mixed bag of criticism.

If anyone is qualified to talk about how the country is changing from the inside, at least from the basis of empirical observation, their credentials would appear hard to beat.

Bonner has been travelling to the Hermit Kingdom since he launched Beijing-based Koryo Tours in 1992. Fellow Englishman Cockerell joined in 2002.

“North Korea isn’t China,” winces tour operator Cockerell when pressed to identify the latest shifts in one of the final frontiers of tourism in Asia. “Change happens gradually over three- or four- year periods, not overnight.”

“There’s a clearly emerging middle class, or what passes for a middle class, in Pyongyang,” he adds after a pause. “Cell phones, consumer goods and nicer clothes are much more visible now, and this makes it harder for foreign analysts, because they are used to the ‘elite and everyone else’ model, which has gone out of the window a bit.”

Ray Cunningham from the United States has visited the DPRK multiple times and possesses what may be the largest collection of photos of the isolated country on photo-sharing website Flickr.

“While the pace of change is glacial, travelling annually gives one a perspective on how change is filtering down to the average citizen,” he says. “More independent sellers are seen each year and a spirit of optimism seems to be emerging even in the remote towns of the northeast.

“I was fascinated with North Korea and how it compared and contrasted with rural China.”

In January, Cockerell became one of the first foreigners to hit the slopes of the Masik Pass Ski Resort. In 2012, Bonner whipped up a storm of controversy by producing the first foreign-made full-length feature film for the country. Short-film maker Anja Daelemans of Belgium co-directed. Cockerell also worked on the project.

The two Englishmen discussed making the film, Comrade Kim Goes Flying, and three documentaries shot in the country, as well as their experience of leading tours there, during a five-day publicity swing through Shanghai.

The movie, a romantic comedy, has been doing the rounds at international film festival for 18 months but has only been screened twice in China, including a showing in Shanghai in February.

It sounds on paper like a DPRK version of the 1983 Hollywood hit Flash Dance. But instead of an exotic dancer from Pittsburgh who welds steel by day while dreaming of becoming a ballerina, the plot revolves around a female miner who makes it as a national acrobat and falls in love along the way.

“I get into arguments with my girlfriend all the time about the legitimacy of projects like this and ‘ethical tourism’ when working with a country like North Korea,” Bonner says.

“But at the end of the day we try to encourage as much interaction with tourists and local people as we can, which we think helps.”

The US film authorities have blasted the pair for effectively supporting the country by producing a propaganda-laced movie, but other US critics and media including the Wall Street Journal have been more effusive in their praise.

Cockerell says: “Every film made in North Korea is a propaganda film. They all have to adhere to a playbook written by (late Dear Leader) Kim Jong-il two decades ago, which can create a lot of headaches.”

In a country where many things appear off-kilter, both of the two leads were acrobats, not actors, while one of the DPRK’s top movie stars accepted a small supporting role.

The crew encountered numerous problems during pre-production and shooting. For example, actors are not allowed to kiss in DPRK movies. Love triangles are also banned.

“This was a real labour of love for Nick,” says Cunningham. “What he accomplished in the years he worked on the film is quite remarkable given the logistical issues of working in the DPRK. The movie and story are a great mix of Korean and Western cinema.”

These days Koryo Tours takes around 2,000 people a year to the country to visit Soviet-era factories, cycle through its verdant rice fields, play amateur football or ice hockey games with local teams, or just marvel at a land trapped in time.

There are also tours for marathon runners, cyclists, golfers and even the Koryo Veterans Tour for those like Cunningham who thirst for something new.

After the reclusive state recently repealed a tourism ban from mid-December to mid-January – no reason was given for its implementation or removal – tourists can even spend New Year’s Eve enjoying fireworks in Kim Sung-il Square and taking boat rides.

Cockerell was courtside when former NBA star Dennis Rodman sang Happy Birthday to Kim Jong-un at an exhibition basketball game in January. He described the impromptu ditty as exactly the kind of unexpected twist that is drawing hordes of long-term Asia expatriates and others to the country.

Despite the bluster from the state-run KNCA about a “sea of fire” raining down on Seoul and Washington, about one-quarter of all tourists who visit are from the United States. Until restrictions were lifted in 2010, US tourists were only granted visas for up to four days.

They can now travel year-round instead of only during the Mass Games, which run for two to three months in the summer on those years when the country has something to celebrate.

Several days after the recent US-DPRK basketball games in Pyongyang, Cockerell crossed paths with Rodman at Masik Pass. He said Rodman, who is reportedly helping the DPRK set up a professional basketball league, had “already had a few drinks by that point”. Tact being a trick of the trade, he didn’t elaborate.

Cockerell also shared the slopes with the DPRK’s answer to the Spice Girls – a 25-member Moranbong Band, and was invited to eat Korean barbecue at the end of one of the runs by friendly soju-swilling locals.

“I was expecting empty slopes, but there were probably 200 to 300 people,” he says. “Not many experienced skiers, though, so they had their professional ski rescue squad out in force. They looked like a combination of wardens and guides.”

When former journalist Jean Lee visited a few weeks later, she told the BBC it confirmed for her how “it’s not easy to make friends in North Korea, but sport transcends barriers.”

Bonner, who trained as a landscape architect, described Pyongyang as “one of the most beautiful cities in North Asia” due to its preserved Soviet-era buildings and monolithic statues.

“It certainly has its own charm. It’s a blank slate onto which you can project whatever you want,” adds Cockerell, “unless you find examples of utilitarian, Soviet-era brutalism an eyesore.”

With 150,000 seats, the city’s May Day Stadium ranks as the largest-capacity sports arena in the world. Construction of marquis projects resumed in earnest several years ago after a 20-year slump.

Bonner also discussed making A State of Mind, a documentary tracking two female gymnasts from different ends of the social spectrum as they prepare for the Mass Games. The non-competitive games are famous for hosting the world’s largest synchronized mosaic-forming performance as audiences hold aloft jigsaw puzzle-like placards.

For another documentary, The Game of Their Lives, Bonner caught up with surviving members of the DPRK football team. It shocked the world by becoming the first Asian team to advance to the quarterfinals of a World Cup in England in 1966.

The award-winning film captures some emotional reunions as they head back to Middlesbrough, an industrial town in Northwest England that ended up adopting them during the tournament.

One of the players is still known as “The Dentist” by Italians for all the pain the DPRK caused the country during an historic upset en route to the final eight.

The DPRK is not scheduled to hold a Mass Games this year, but Cockerell expects to see a colossal party next summer when the country celebrates the 70th anniversary of the end of Japanese colonial rule. — China Daily/ Asia News Network

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