The flight to Pyongyang is full. A gaggle of tourists from the United Kingdom chatter on about their trip to what's often described as the world's most isolated country. A group of smartly suited Westerners attempt to send out their last few text messages before departure - mobile phones are confiscated upon arrival in Pyongyang and email is rarely available.
Over in business class, a stocky Caucasian engages in familiar banter with the stewardesses. Nick Bonner has made this journey countless times over the last 17 years. He runs Koryo Tours, a Beijing-based company that specializes in package tours to North Korea.
Bonner's clients are mainly well-traveled Westerners, eager to see something different. But he's not the only one operating in this niche market. Other companies cater to tourists from China and South Korea. Their presence illustrates a little known fact – that the so-called ‘hermit state’ isn’t as isolated as most people think.
For Bonner, his long engagement with Pyongyang has been a rewarding one.
"I have never been cheated and have built up a company that takes over 1,000 tourists a year and enjoyed the time doing it," he explains.
Others agree that doing business with Pyongyang might not be as difficult as many believe. Netherlands-based consultant Paul Tjia regularly organizes trade visits to North Korea and advises clients interested in opportunities there.
"Arranging a visa is nowadays easy for business people," he says. "There's not much bureaucracy. Even government officials want to create new business."
One of the North’s biggest trading partners is also its closest rival. The Kaesong Industrial Region hosts more than 100 South Korean companies that employ tens of thousands of North Koreans. When tensions rose earlier this year over the sinking of the Cheonan warship, the two sides exchanged harsh words but stopped short of halting work in the industrial zone.
Outside of Kaesong and beyond tourism, there are a few surprises. North Korea has a large and well-established animation industry that does work for clients in Asia, Europe and even North America. The “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il has in recent years, embarked on a push to raise technological standards in the country, and software development appears to have taken off. Two mobile phone games developed by North Korean programmers have apparently been published by a News Corporation subsidiary.
Among the elites in Pyongyang, cell phones are becoming an increasingly common accessory. The mobile service is provided by 'Koryolink', a network set up by Egypt's Orascom Group. The company invested some $400 million in the venture, and is now embarking on a plan to open a bank in North Korea.
There are those who argue that it is unethical engaging with a country that's been accused of severe human rights violations. There are also fears that geopolitical tensions could derail business relationships, with the international community regularly threatening sanctions as a way of punishing Pyongyang.
"There are many political issues," Tjia says, "but my personal view is that economic development can have a positive impact for North Korea, as the developments in China over the last 25 years have shown."
Bonner too, believes in engagement. Koryo Tours regularly organizes cultural and sporting exchanges with the outside world. He's also produced three North Korean documentaries and is hoping to break new ground with his latest venture – the country’s very first romantic comedy.