For $1,052, the Young Pioneer Tours travel agency promises a summer adventure through the hot spas and water parks of North Korea. For $2,060, Koryo Group offers “the ultimate experience” of touring Pyongyang during Victory Day, the festival where North Koreans commemorate the end of the Korean War. And for $869, Lupine Tours presents tourists with a glimpse into New Year’s celebrations behind “the world's last remaining ‘iron curtain.’”
Now the brutal death of a young American student is sparking a new push in the US to prevent any Americans from joining these tours.
Otto Warmbier died on Monday, just days after returning to the US in a coma after 17 months in captivity in North Korea. The 22-year-old had been sentenced to 15 years of labor for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster in a staff-only section of a hotel in Pyongyang while on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours.
Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, said his son had been duped into thinking that his trip to North Korea would be a safe one.
“The North Koreans lure Americans to travel to North Korea via tour groups, run out of China, who advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming, ‘No American ever gets detained on our tours,’ and, ‘This is a safe place to go,’” he said at a press conference.
To be clear, travel agencies like the one Warmbier used to go to North Korea are not typically owned or operated by the country. But it does seem this organization and at least one other have downplayed if not entirely concealed the possibility of risk for travelers on this trip on their websites, and instead presented the country as a hazard-free exotic destination.
Until the day Warmbier died, Young Pioneer Tours’ online FAQs described North Korea as “Extremely safe!” and assured potential travelers, “Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit.”
Only after Warmbier died did the company amend its FAQs to include a note on the harsh consequences tourists might face for disobeying North Korean laws. It also announced that it would no longer take Americans to North Korea because the “risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.”
There has been no indication that Young Pioneer Tours will be canceling any of its upcoming tours, though — one tour, to the North Korean borderlands, is scheduled to depart on June 21. Lupine Travel, which has also depicted North Korea as exceptionally safe in the past, is still considering whether or not to take further bookings from Americans, while two other agencies — Uri Tours and Koryo Group — have told CNN they’re also reviewing whether to accept Americans on trips to North Korea.
At the same time, Washington is considering measures that might foreclose the possibility entirely. In a statement released shortly after Warmbier’s death was announced, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Ed Royce said, “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.”
Such a ban could come either through legislation or by an executive order from the White House. In May, Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced the North Korea Travel Control Act in the House of Representatives, which would block all US tourist travel to North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also told a House committee last week that the White House is contemplating initiating its own ban.
“We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea,” Tillerson told a House committee last week. “We haven’t come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it.”
A ban might be a way to prevent another tragedy like Warmbier’s case, which could be repeated as other travelers enter the country through tour agencies that don’t provide them with enough context on the harshness of the regime and the risks of their journey there.
But it also would further isolate the most hermetic regime in the world — and help compound swiftly rising tensions between North Korea and the US.
Some guided tours have glossed over the perils of traveling to North Korea
Guided tours are the only way most travelers will ever get to see North Korea, and these tours are tightly controlled by the North Korean government. A few dozen international companies obtain licenses from the North Korean government to operate there and work in conjunction with state guides who take visitors around — and supervise them — once they arrive.
With the exception of Chinese citizens who have been able to drive into the North Korean town of Luo since 2011, foreign visitors are not allowed to travel around the country without a state-approved North Korean guide.
These international tour agencies tend to market trips to North Korea as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to visit a country shrouded in mystery. They describe the country in exotic, almost mythological terms and provide little context on its political situation.
Lupine Tours, for example, introduces the country as “The Secret State. The Hermit Kingdom. The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea,” but doesn’t provide any other information on the nature of the North Korean government or its geopolitical relationships with other countries.
Young Pioneer Tours also doesn’t offer much background into security risks in North Korea. Instead, the agency pitches itself to thrill-seeking travelers, branding its trips as “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
(And if North Korea isn’t quite exciting enough, Young Pioneer Tours also offers trips to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Cuba, and Antarctica.)
As recently as June 19, Young Pioneer Tours wrote on its website that traveling to North Korea is “Extremely safe!”
“Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of,” the site said.
This description has now been changed to include a disclaimer that there may be severe consequences for tourists if they violate North Korea’s strict “lèse-majesté laws,” which are laws against offending the dignity of a sovereign or a state. The page now also states that all tourists need to sign a pre-tour travel arrangement and attend pre-tour briefings on their visit — both of which were not mentioned in an earlier version of the site.
In recent days, Young Pioneer Tours and similar agencies have received serious criticism for how they market their tours and seemingly obscure the risks of traveling to North Korea. The difficult, underlying question behind these discussions is whether Young Pioneer Tours holds any kind of responsibility for Warmbier’s death.
Lupine appears to have changed its pitch to travelers in the past year — although it’s unclear exactly when.
As recently as October 2016, Lupine Travel stated on its website that “North Korea is considered one of the safest tourist destinations in the world,” but warned that “constant disrespect and criticism is likely to lead to deportation or in extreme circumstances, jail.”
This disclaimer has since changed: It’s dropped the language on being one of the “safest” spots in the world to visit and now advises Americans to “exercise additional caution while in the country.” It also notifies customers that they will attend “a mandatory safety briefing prior to the tour that will discuss the ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’ of North Korea.”
Founder and director of Lupine Travel Dylan Harris said in an emailed statement to Vox that the company has always had these briefings but plans to expand them in light of what happened to Warmbier.
“One of the major issues we bring up in the pre-trip briefings is to stay away from the restricted floor in the Yanggakdo hotel,” Harris said, referring to the floor where Warmbier was supposedly caught by North Korean authorities trying to steal a propaganda poster.
At least 16 US citizens have been detained in North Korea in the past 10 years, and three have yet to be released. Warmbier is also not the first nor the only American to have been injured during captivity. But many Americans head there anyway. Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, estimates that some 20 percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 Western tourists who venture to North Korea every year are Americans, according to the New York Times.
That could change in the wake of Warmbier’s death.
All of this comes amid great uncertainty in US-North Korea relations
Warmbier’s death — and a potential US travel ban — comes at a particularly troubling time in US-North Korean relations. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has been testing ballistic missiles at a rapid clip since Donald Trump entered the White House and has been suggesting the country is preparing to carry out its sixth nuclear test.
Trump has made reining in North Korea’s belligerence one of his top foreign policy priorities, but it’s a decades-long problem that has no easy solutions, and Warmbier’s death is only going to complicate things further.
One question is whether Warmbier’s death will become a kind of Syria moment for the Trump administration — a moment when a high-profile tragedy spurs a concrete shift in policy. After the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians in Syria in April, Trump discarded his campaign pledge to refrain from intervening against anyone in the Middle East outside of ISIS and lobbed 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase. Could Warmbier’s death become a moment that causes Trump to pivot hard toward some new course of action?
On Tuesday afternoon, Trump seemed to imply that that could be the case. “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!” he tweeted. It’s a vague, mystifying tweet that’s hard to parse, but it seems to imply that Trump has decided to move beyond his bid to seek Chinese assistance in managing the North Korea problem and might have a new policy approach coming up. (Which, it should be noted, is strange since Trump has barely even begun his attempt to get China on board with tougher measures against North Korea.)
But there are only so many options available to the US when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang, and none of them are good. An attempted preemptive strike on its nuclear holdings would be a catastrophic decision that would probably result in the death of millions of civilians, and sanctions and diplomacy are toothless without China being on board. Trump’s next move is anyone’s guess.