Simon - My
first North
Korea trip

Looking back 15 years to the very first time I entered the DPRK

Simon Cockerell is the General Manger of Koryo Tours. He has traveled to North Korea over 160 times and also leads tours to Turkmenistan and the Magadan in the Russian Far East. Follow Simon on Instagram @simonkoryo.

Way back in the mists of time, in April 2002 to be precise, I made my very first trip to North Korea. It was something I had thought about doing since moving to Beijing 18 months earlier and noticing a Pyongyang Restaurant while cycling around the city one day and realizing that if some of ‘them’ could get out, then I could certainly get in.

I made contact with Nick Bonner, then running Koryo Tours all alone, and he was putting on a special tour for some friends of his and kindly invited me to join. Soon enough we were off to the DPRK, stopping along the way for lunch in Shenyang (in NE China, this was where I was offered the job that I still currently do) and made touchdown in Pyongyang to start the adventure.

not my tour bus at the time, but public buses of the same style

Of course like almost every visitor I thought I knew what to expect, but inevitably it turned out to be not quite like what I envisaged. The people were much more accessible than I had thought, the food somewhat more varied, and the experience much more touching and meaningful. My group visited the highlights of the country (Pyongyang, DMZ, Kaesong) and we even went to the Arirang Festival (which I had never even heard of!) on the first night, an amazing way to start a trip!

My first guides I have very warm memories of indeed. One man and one woman. One of them is currently stationed in Beijing and who I still see often, another is currently living in Iran of all places, and I can speak to her online. So it’s good to have contacts still from the very first moment!

Panmunjom, inside the DMZ. I was 'lucky' enough to see both South Korean and US military personnel just steps away on my first visit. They didn't say hello when greeted

People usually ask me on every trip what changes I have seen – well sometimes I think it is a lot and sometimes not very much. After all living in Beijing gives one a different sense of scale when considering the changes you see elsewhere. I was looking through some of the (universally awful) photos I took I April 2002 and realised that in many of them things look exactly the same as they do today, so not much change I that respect. But I would say the main change is the way I have seen the people we work with become so much worldlier, more attuned to what their clients are interested in, better at dealing with foreign tourists, and simply more open-minded. This is a positive benefit of tourism that is often overlooked, but it affects hundreds, maybe thousands of people, and this is the kind of thing we have always been all about generating in the DPRK - and I hope to continue to do that for the next 15 years, or however long it takes! Come and join me to contribute to this yourself!

Dancers at the very first thing I saw when I arrived in Pyongyang for the first time - the Arirang Mass Games

Follow my pics posted #livefromnorthkorea on Instagram @simonkoryo

Departure from the bustling lounge at Pyongyang Sunan Airport - since demolished and rebuilt

Simon Cockerell

Simon has been Koryo’s General Manager since 2002. He has travelled to North Korea more than 175 times and has probably been to the country more than any other Westerner. He is a respected speaker on the country and appears regularly in international media. He is also a tour specialist in Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the Russian Far East where he has personally designed and led multiple tours over the years.

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Room A409, Jucai Building. No. 76 Caoyuan Hutong.
Dongcheng District, Beijing, 100027, PR China

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