How a Working Class Londoner Started Running Tours Into North Korea

A guy named Gareth Johnson explains how he found a cheap way into the Hermit Kingdom via Hong Kong, and how he sees the ethics of his trade.
July 8, 2016, 12:00am

Lads on tour: Gareth Johnson is the big guy in red. Image supplied.

You can laugh at North Korea, you can fear and dislike its government and, as it turns out, you can make like Dennis Rodman and visit as a tourist in what has become a booming industry in the mysterious, isolationist communist dictatorship.

One of those responsible for bringing people in, and out again, is Gareth Johnson. He's the founder of a company called Young Pioneer Tours, which provides "budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from." The company started in May 2008 after Gareth found a cheaper way in through Hong Kong the first time he visited and ended up getting drunk with a North Korean "in charge of stuff."

"We're now the second biggest player in North Korean tourism," Gareth told me and it's a sentence even he admitted felt crazy to say out loud.

North Korean metro drivers. Photos by Shane Horan who is also a tour guide with the company. His Instagram is also beautiful.

So how did a working class kid from West London leave home to eventually set up a business running tours into a country US State Department "strongly urges" people to avoid?

"Basically I've always had a bit of an unnatural obsession with all things communist," Gareth said, explaining his teenage politics were "slightly left of Pol Pot." That might have something to do with how he was present during the Wapping riots as a seven-year-old when 5000 people from the printer's union, including his father, were charged by police on horseback.

Gareth's first travel experience came when he went with his English-Bangladeshi best friend to Bangladesh—spending his 16th birthday swimming in floodwaters free from parental supervision.

"We were knocking about with his cousin and his cousin's friends," he remembered. "We were a bunch of lads going out, smoking cigarettes, looking at girls. A couple of guys I would have died for, a couple were alright, and a couple were dicks that I didn't know why we hung out."

Dance at the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang

At 21, Gareth left London to go bartend in the Cayman Islands. After a while, he hit up Cuba—when the embargo was still going strong—and a month later he went to teach English in China. Much of the rest of his 20s were spent kicking around what used to be the Eastern Bloc.

These days Gareth is a veteran of 111 countries. He's ridden the Trans-Siberian railway, he's had cops in Transnistria point a gun in his face over a $20 bribe. He's even made it into, and out of, Eritrea—a country more North Korean than North Korea.

But it's North Korea that people want to know about.

Just like their counterparts in the South, North Koreans are very conservative. But Gareth found soju is always a good weapon of choice when looking to make friends. Unlike the Chinese, he said, North Koreans can handle their liquor. There is bureaucracy, like there is everywhere, but when doing business North Koreans get straight to the point with a clear yes or no. In China, it's always a maybe.

Fishing in Sariwon

Of course, depending on who you ask, the ethics of all this can be tricky. Either North Korean tourism gives direct financial support to one of the world's worst human rights abusers or it is bringing the outside world to North Koreans living under an isolationist, authoritarian regime.

Gareth disagrees with the idea that tourism funds the regime. He believes the advantages of cultural exchange far outway the negatives. "The world is opening up. It isn't drawing up the drawbridge," he says. "I feel that interaction and cultural exchange is always positive."

Press conference with 21-year-old Otto Frederick Warmbier. Image via.

The next question is one of safety. Every year thousands of people visit, and most make it out just fine, though sometimes they don't. Such was the case with 21-year-old American student Otto Frederick Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in March, for allegedly attempting to steal a sign from the hotel where he was staying.

Warmbier was travelling with Gareth's company when the incident happened. He was the only person in the group stopped while trying to leave the country. It's a situation I was curious about, but Gareth refused to discuss in much detail out of concern for Warmbier's safety.

"Out of his respect for him and his family I cannot talk about him," Gareth said. "It's not a case of don't want to, it's can't." All he will say is that "if I bring guests that are respectful, willing to listen, willing to interact with people, North Koreans will see that we are normal people as well."

And with the company's slogan, I wanted to know what Gareth's mum thought about all this. When I spoke to Deborah Reeves, she was honestly not fussed about the whole North Korea bit. She would rather he just smoked and drank less.

"Whether I wanted him to or not, he would have done it anyway," she said.

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