American student Otto Warmbier’s imprisonment and murder by North Korea’s savage Communist regime prompted many questions about the tour group in which he participated.
Who offers tour packages to one of the most deranged and repressive nations in human history, and why would anyone take them up on it?
Warmbier’s father Fred denounced companies offering North Korean tour packages in the press conference he gave after his comatose son was finally released, implying that some of these agencies were working with the North Korean government to set up kidnappings.
The company used by Otto Warmbier, Young Pioneer Tours, has announced that it will no longer accept American clients. However, the company remains in business.
“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists. There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality and we have been struggling to process the result,” the company said in a statement.
Young Pioneer Tours’ website continues to present North Korea as a fun and perfectly safe destination, billing its guides as “professional, friendly, and super fun” experts whose “fantastic relations with our colleagues in the DPRK” allow thrill-seekers to “open doors that would otherwise remain closed if not travelling with us.”
The tour guides gush about their love for North Korea in their website bios. One of them praises a co-operative farm by saying that “experiencing the model rural lifestyle of the local people always makes me feel closer to them.” The guides talk about their desire to “change people’s often incorrect perceptions” of rogue nations.
Attractions on these tours include “seeing the must-see sights in Pyongyang and visiting the DMZ,” plus hiking, nature walks, and skiing. The company also offers budget travel to other “destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,” including Afghanistan, Iran, and Chernobyl.
Young Pioneer is not the only tour company offering North Korean packages. Another, Koryo Tours, mentions to prospective customers that North Korea has “strained” relationships with “several nations” because the DPRK has “developed nuclear technologies.”
“Today the country remains on its own political course, pursuing a twin policy of self-reliant economic development and self-defense,” Koryo Tours cheerfully observes. “In society increased access to services and goods – both foreign and domestic – are changing the way people go about their lives as the DPRK approaches its 70th anniversary in 2018.”
Like Young Pioneer, Koryo Tours says it is on a mission to “change the perceptions of western of our Western tourists and Korean hosts.” Prospective clients are asked to make donations to “humanitarian and cultural engagement projects which benefit the people of North Korea.” Their current project involves delivering containers of food to eight orphanages in the DPRK.
Koryo’s sales pitch doesn’t appeal as much to extreme-tourism appetites as Young Pioneer’s. Koryo stresses cultural exchange, the natural beauty to be found in North Korea, and the safety of its tours, which begin with briefings by “country experts” at the company’s Beijing office. The agency says it takes over 2,000 people on tours to “this extraordinary destination” every year.
Koryo Tours issued a statement expressing “shock and sadness” over the death of Otto Warmbier, which they described as an “awful and devastating tragedy.”
“This young man did not deserve the disproportionate sentence given to him, and what followed was a disgrace, which we categorically condemn – from the paucity of information provided during his detention, and the worrying lack of consular visits, to the distressing and horrifying condition in which he was returned to his family,” the company said.
“We are sickened by those involved in Otto Warmbier’s treatment, and join those demanding a full explanation,” the statement added. “We hope that everyone inside and outside of North Korea comes to know the full and true story of what happened to Otto, and we are saddened beyond belief that his unjust imprisonment should end in such tragedy.”
The statement concluded by saying that Koryo Tours is “currently reviewing the issue of U.S. citizens travelling to North Korea.”
A far more terse, much less condemnatory statement was issued by Uri Tours, a third company specializing in North Korean tourism.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Otto Warmbier’s family and friends. This was a heart-wrenching tragedy that should have been avoided. In light of recent events, Uri Tours is reviewing its position on DPRK travel for American citizens. We will not be granting interviews in connection with this matter,” the statement reads in its entirety.
Uri Tours, based in New York and Shanghai, depicts North Korea as a fun-loving place. “During national holidays is the best time to visit the DPRK because North Koreans really take their holidays seriously!” the website declares. “Holidays come complete with mass dances in the square, fireworks and during larger occasions, military parades.”
“The DPRK boasts a very low crime rate and in our experience, the DPRK feels incredibly safe,” Uri Tours assures its clients. “We have not had any reported thefts or incidents on any of our tours and our local guides take good care to ensure the traveler’s safety and well-being. Despite recent political events, tourism is not affected and our staff maintains good relations with foreign embassies to monitor the safety of all of our tourists.”
The Uri Tours website assures American customers that travel to North Korea is perfectly legal, and links to the State Department website several times, but fails to mention that the U.S. State Department “strongly warns U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea.” The State Department notes that North Korea enforces “wartime law” against Americans since the Korean War ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The sales pitch for North Korea tourism mixes edgy thrill seeking, insatiable curiosity, the humanitarian impulse, and appeals to youthful rebellion and arrogance. Some customers are told they will see just how wrong the rest of the world is about friendly North Korea. Others are drawn by the promise of improving North Korean life through cultural exchange and hard currency.
One Uri Tours customer interviewed in a January 2015 Chicago Tribune piece, titled “North Korea’s Tourism Door Is Open, If You Dare, and I Would,” described Western tourism to the outlaw nation as a charitable endeavor, an act of kindness to the North Korean people.
“I do not defend the regime. it’s really harsh and oppressive, and I’m no champion of what goes on over there,” said the traveler, John Massaro of New York. “I would say the people in the tourist industry there are the happiest people in North Korea. Just to get some exposure to the outside world, they’re so happy. And the money we pay is supporting these people’s occupations.”
The murder of Otto Warmbier augurs hard times for the North Korean tourism industry, assuming Congress does not shut it down entirely. A bill sponsored by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) called the North Korea Travel Control Act would block all tourist visits to the DPRK and impose strict licensing requirements on all other prospective visitors.
“Tourist travel to North Korea does nothing but provide funds to a tyrannical regime – that will in turn be used to develop weapons to threaten the United States and our allies,” said Rep. Wilson. “Worse, the regime has routinely imprisoned innocent foreign civilians and used them as bargaining chips to gain credibility with the West. We should not enable them any longer.”
“The North Korean regime has shown once again that it is perfectly willing to treat Americans who visit their nation as hostages to extract concessions from the United States, and to put their lives in danger,” said Schiff.
The bill was introduced before the world learned Otto Warmbier was comatose and has been gathering steam since his death. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) said on Tuesday, as quoted by Politico: “It’s something we should seriously look at, because it affects our national security. It puts us in a very precarious position. We have three Americans there now. We’re constantly having to get people out of the country.”
Politico cites support for the idea of a North Korea travel ban from the top Senate Foreign Relations Democrat, Ben Cardin of Maryland, and notes Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is considering State Department restrictions.
However, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) expressed reluctance towards a travel ban, preferring to leave the decision up to individual travelers, even after the Warmbier outrage. “I think first we need to warn Americans that they should not go and that their lives are endangered if they go,” said McCain.