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Visitors ease reclusive nation from its shell

05-18-2010 14:10 BJT

BARRY CUNNGHAM

"I'm not a 'fellow traveler' or 'a useful idiot,'" says Simon Cockerell, explaining his fascination with North Korea while ridiculing the Cold War clichés for Westerners sympathetic to the old bloodstained brand of Marxist- Leninism.

If Cockerell sounds a bit sarcastic, that's probably because he has spent more time in North Korea than the entire foreign policy establishment of US experts and armchair generals in Washington DC.

People who have never set foot on North Korean soil can blow smoke rings all day long with their elaborate theories of how nuclear deterrence and economic sanctions are going to somehow change the isolated nation.

Cockerell knows North Korea from the ground up, and sees a more realistic sign of change.

He's a tour guide operator and documentary filmmaker with practical insights on human relations in a country that much of the world regards as a tragic symbol of socialism gone bad.

Over the past decade, the 32-year-old Briton has made 89 trips to North Korea.

The world's most secretive state is no longer forbidden territory for foreign tourists. Admittedly, only a couple of thousand Westerners have made the trek, and until recently no Americans were allowed in. Most of them used Cockerell's cultural exchange and travel agency, the Koryo Group.

The biggest tourist draw, of course, is the mass games synchronized sports spectacular with 100,000 performers and card-flippers creating animated images in the world's largest soccer stadium.

"It makes the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games look like a school play."

But there's more to North Korea than mass games and a pilgrimage to see the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, embalmed in a crystal casket.

"It's never boring," Cockerell says of travel to Pyongyang, the drab and cheerless capital, devoid of neon lights or advertising billboards, "Instead, it's a bit like China in the past or the way Russia used to be."

Rare glimpses into a kingdom of self-imposed isolation are precisely what attract Westerners to the Koryo Group, which Cockerell helps run out of offices in Beijing.

"We are not a load of retired people following a flag and wearing funny hats," he says of the people-to-people tours.

"Kicking a football around with a North Korean kid is not going to change the world. But it does help people there become more aware of foreigners. A lot more people in North Korea are speaking English these days. The biggest change I've seen in 10 years is cell phones made in Egypt. Everybody has one."

The 60th anniversary of the Korean War will be commemorated next month with many tributes paid by South Korea to the 52,246 American soldiers who died in the "forgotten war."

A chat with Cockerell is a reminder that the war has not been forgotten in North Korea, where an estimated 3 million civilians died.

"If you say it's a drab place, you have to remember that between 1951 and 1953, the US Air Force destroyed every building in the country," he said.

Cockerell believes that ordinary North Koreans have suffered a "persecution complex" ever since.

"They say they have an image of foreigners as the people who have oppressed and trampled them. But they have no political agenda. If you're not Korean, they don't try to brainwash you."

Nowhere is this more evident, he says, than a tour ride to Panmunjom, the "truce village" that straddles the border between the North and the South in the middle of a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that has split the peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The DMZ is a stark reminder that after 60 years, the US and North Korea are technically still at war.

"It's like entering a time warp," Cockerell says of the demarcation line. "Tense but not scary. The guards on either side have been in a staring contest for 60 years. But behind the stares are a million soldiers trained to kill each other. It's relaxed on the north with people smiling and waving at the South Korean tourists, who are not allowed to wave back. It's bizarre."

Cockerell's experience shows that change begins at the grass-roots. Simple friendships have enabled him to film three intriguing documentaries on North Korea, and begin his latest movie project there, a romantic comedy.

That's quite something in a land without much laughter.

Editor:Jin Lin |Source: Global Times

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