TOKYO — For some intrepid travelers, North Korea is the holy grail. There’s hardly a place that’s more off the beaten path, a travel tale more exotic than one that begins “When I was in Pyongyang . . .”
About 1,000 American tourists visit North Korea each year, looking for an adventure and a glimpse at the “Hermit Kingdom.” But the death of Otto Warmbier, the American student who had been imprisoned in the country for 17 months, has focused a new light on tourism to North Korea, which the regime has been trying to promote.
Warmbier’s father, Fred, said after his son was sent home in a coma last week that companies promoting tourism to North Korea are providing “fodder” for the regime. Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed. “Otto’s father is right: travel propaganda lures far too many people to North Korea.”
The United States should ban tourist travel to North Korea, Royce said after Warmbier’s parents announced their 22-year-old son’s death on Monday.
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was curious about the world and wanted to explore it, his father said in an interview in April. So, at the end of 2015, the young man joined the “New Year’s Party Tour” run by Young Pioneer Tours, a company that boasts “budget tours to destinations your mother wants you to stay away from!”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has set a goal of attracting a million tourists a year to the Communist-ruled county. Critics have said tourism is a significant source of foreign currency for the regime.
The State Department has steadily ratcheted up its travel advisory for North Korea and strongly warns Americans against traveling to the country because of the risk of arbitrary detention. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign.
Efforts to restrict U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea are likely to gain new momentum now, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle calling the regime “barbaric” and “murderous.”
A bill is already before the House to limit travel to North Korea for American citizens, and Warmbier’s death could prompt the Senate to consider the same. The Trump administration is also considering stopping Americans from going to North Korea as tourists.
Three other Americans are still being detained in North Korea but they were all working there — two at a private Korean American-run university and one at a hotel in a northern special economic zone.
Particular attention is now falling on Young Pioneer Tours, a travel company which takes its name from the youth leagues in Communist countries.
“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier's life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists,” the company said in a statement Tuesday, calling his detention “appalling” and saying “a tragedy like this must never be repeated.”
Young Pioneer Tours will no longer be taking U.S. citizens to North Korea, it said. “We now consider the risk to Americans visiting North Korea to be too high and as such we can no longer accept Americans traveling on U.S. passports for tours to North Korea.”
The other two main travel companies, British-run Koryo Tours and New Jersey-based Uri Tours, said that they were “reviewing” whether to continue taking Americans to North Korea. All of the companies have had tourists detained in North Korea, but none with the consequences faced by Warmbier.
Young Pioneer Tours had been raising red flags for some time among the relatively small group of people who travel to North Korea regularly.
Five people who witnessed Young Pioneer Tours in North Korea said they saw reckless behavior, with customers drinking heavily, not being respectful and denigrating their local tour guides. Three of the five people interviewed work in North Korea and the other two were on tours.
“Frankly, this company is run by some hard-drinking dudes and the culture of their tours is infused with that,” said one of the people, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he still works in North Korea. He recalled seeing some of the tourists leaving the hotel bar at 7:30 a.m.
A person who had been on a Young Pioneer tour said that the company’s spiel about not being a typical travel experience was a big part of its appeal, and that drinking was a part of that. The company advertises a “not your average beer festival” trip to Pyongyang in the summer and a St. Patrick's Day tour featuring an “international pub crawl.” “So put on your greens and come join us as we challenge the [North] Koreans to a bunch of friendly drinking games!” its site says.
But taking too casual an attitude toward being in North Korea can foster a “reckless” atmosphere among tour groups, said another frequent traveler to Pyongyang.
One tourist did a handstand in front of Kumsusan, the mausoleum where North Korea’s first two leaders lie in state, one of the most sensitive sites for the regime. This resulted in the North Korean tour guide losing her job, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
“People are quick to embellish their stories when the media are interested,” said Troy Collings, a New Zealander who is one of the partners in the company.
Tour leaders had warned all the customers about the significant of Kumsusan and told them not to act inappropriately near images of the leaders, he said.
“We have taken over 8,000 people to North Korea with only one incident,” Collings said.
Daniel Lahti, a 31-year-old Swede who ran the Pyongyang marathon in April, said he never felt anything less than safe in North Korea, even when enjoying a few beers after the big run.
“It was perfectly fine while we were there,” said Lahti, who went on a tour led by Collings. “He was very concerned about safety and told us that everyone should behave in certain ways. As long as you play by the rules, you’ll be fine.”
Adrian Webster, a 31-year-old Australian who traveled to North Korea with his girlfriend in April, said that he always felt safe with Young Pioneer Tours.
“Before departing to North Korea, a briefing took place in Beijing. They again highlighted the rules, and answered any concerns and questions,” he said. “When making the booking you are also required to read and sign a travel agreement.”
Young Pioneer Tours was founded in 2008 by Gareth Johnson, a 36-year-old British man who has a large red tattoo on his left arm showing the Communist hammer and sickle that — along with a calligraphy brush — are the emblem of North Korea’s ruling party. The brush is replaced by a machine gun in his tattoo.
“I realized there was nothing in the way of a budget company that catered for the demographic of people who would not usually do ‘group tours,’ so felt I could combine my love of travel with my newfound love for the people and culture of the DPRK!” Johnson says on the company’s website, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name.
Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.