SEOUL–North Korea’s latest detention of an American on holiday, its fourth in less than two and a half years, has rekindled scrutiny of the safety and ethics of its controversial tourism industry.
The Korean Central News Agency, North Korea’s official propaganda service, announced the detention of American Otto Warmbier on Friday, accusing the 21-year-old University of Virginia student of committing a “hostile act.” With scant elaboration, KNCA accused Warmbier of entering the country to destroy North Korea’s “single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation.”
Like all western tourists to the reclusive country, Warmbier traveled with one of the handful of foreign travel companies specializing in tours to the so-called Hermit Kingdom, Young Pioneer Tours. Like its competitors, YPT has long insisted that the country is absolutely safe to visit for tourism.
Safest place on earth?
“Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit,” reads the FAQ on its website. “Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of.”
While insisting all of its customers are warned of the risks of travel, YTP reiterated this point in a statement released over the weekend, noting that the arrest was the first among what it said had been more than 7,000 customers.
It added that it was working with local authorities, the US State Department and Pyongyang’s Swedish Embassy, which represents American interests in North Korea, to secure its customer’s release.
Warmbier is the fourth American tourist to be arrested and held by North Korea after Merrill Newman, Matthew Miller and Jeffrey Fowle, all of whom were later released. He is also one of three Westerners currently being held in the country, along with Canadian pastor Hyeon Soo Lim and Korean-American missionary Kim Dong-chul.
“The tour agencies have to be 100% honest about the danger and the risk if they (customers) don’t abide 100% by the rules laid out by the North Koreans or by the tour groups,” Jean H. Lee, the former Pyongyang bureau chief of the Associated Press, told Asia Times. “It can be safe, but certainly, you break one rule — and it could be a very minor infraction in our world — and it has serious consequences in there.”
Tourists to North Korea are constantly cloaked by North Korean minders, and are restricted in where they can stay or visit. In Warmbier’s case, it remains unclear what led to his arrest. YPT told Reuters only that an “incident” at his hotel had preceded him being escorted to an immigration room at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport ahead of his departing flight. Tourists previously detained have gotten into trouble for a variety of reasons. Newman, a Korean War veteran, reportedly asked his North Korean guides to meet other veterans; Miller tried to get arrested by ripping up his visa and claiming asylum; and Fowle purposely left a bible in a nightclub in a country where proselytizing is banned.
“The problem is that we in the West or South Korea are accustomed to a lot more freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of movement — so it’s very hard to wrap our heads around the idea that we can’t just go for a walk because that’s illegal,” said Lee.
Internal political angle
She added that safety could also depend on North Korea’s internal political situation at the time. Pyongyang is currently facing the prospect of further international sanctions for its fourth nuclear test earlier this month, which it claimed was a hydrogen bomb.
“So anyone who chooses to make a trip there really needs to do their homework before they go to North Korea,” said Lee. “They need to understand what the situation is politically, they need to understand what the rules and regulations are. And they should not believe any travel agency that pretends it’s just like traveling to any other country; it’s not like any other country.”
Along with YPT, four foreign tour companies — Koryo Tours, Uri Tours, Juche Travel Services and Korea Konsult — either declined to comment or failed to respond to queries by Asia Times about how customers had responded to the arrest or whether they intended to review safety.
Mark Yampolsky, who runs US-based New Korea Tours, said the latest incident hadn’t prompted him to reevaluate how he operated his business or to believe North Korea had become more dangerous than before.
“I believe that such incidents are the results of tourists’ behavior which contradicts pre-tour instructions they receive,” he said.
That was a sentiment echoed by former tour guide in North Korea who wished to remain anonymous.
“I’m very interested to learn the details of the incident, people just don’t get detained in the DPRK (Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea) for no reason, something drastic must have happened,” he said.
For now, business appears to be running as normal for tour operators. YTP has said its tours have not been affected, and as yet no other tour company has indicated any differently.
“There is always some sort of crisis in the the DPRK tourism industry,” said the former guide. “Things will continue moving ahead. I think YPT is heavily involved with their inside contacts and working with concerned agencies to resolve the situation.”
John Power is a journalist who has reported on North and South Korea since 2010. His work has appeared in outlets including The Daily Mail, The Christian Science Monitor, Mashable, NK News, Asian Geographic, The Diplomat, The Korea Herald and Narratively, among others.