Third-year Commerce student Otto Warmbier was detained by the North Korean government Jan. 2 for stealing a banner featuring propaganda promoting former leader Kim Jong-il at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years of “hard labor” March 16, similar to many other American detainees in North Korea, who were all subsequently released.
Warmbier traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a group which markets itself as providing “budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” The slogan is fitting: the U.S. State Department currently advises against traveling to North Korea, though travel there is not illegal. This leaves many wondering what exactly Young Pioneer Tours is and why it travels to ill-advised locations.
Founded in 2008 by a British expat living in China, YPT also offers trips to Cuba, Iran, Chernobyl, unrecognized countries and numerous other places. Despite the risk accompanying trips to many of these locations, adventure-seekers have rated the tour group highly — it received a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor in 2014 and 2015, according to its website.
And adventure-seekers seem to be on the rise: the number of tourists traveling to North Korea has increased in the last several years. However, there is no reliable data about this increase, Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific studies at University of California-San Diego and co-author of the “North Korea: Witness to Transformation” blog, said in an email statement.
Why travel to North Korea?
Tourists may choose to travel to the isolated country for several reasons, Daniel Pinkston — former North East Asia deputy project director at the International Crisis Group and now a lecturer at Troy University, both located in Seoul, South Korea — said.
“It’s promoted in North Korea; they like to have tourists come and spend hard currency there, and there are a few tour groups doing that,” Pinkston said. “And I guess on the demand side there’s a market for that, or people who are attracted to that or want to go there for various reasons.”
Tourists are typically left-leaning Eastern Europeans, wealthier Chinese tourists, travelers looking for an exotic location and individuals with scholarly interests, among others, Pinkston said.
Walter Keats, president of Asia Pacific Travel, used to lead tours to North Korea until he and his wife were denied entry several years ago without explanation. He said his groups typically went for scholarly reasons, as opposed to tour groups geared toward adventure-seeking, younger travelers.
“In our experience, people going to North Korea tend to have spent more time looking into it, reading about it, etc.,” Keats said. “They’ve done some homework to decide to go there. … The second element is that the tour companies need to make sure that they brief these people and that they have some knowledgeable person [traveling with them].”
John Terry Dundon, chief operating officer of Uri Tours, one of Young Pioneer Tours’ competitors, said while his company has seen an increase in American tourists, the increase is consistent with increased tourism in general.
When asked whether nationality affects the risk associated with travel to the country, Pinkston said it would be unlikely for it to affect a tourist’s interactions in the country — just that tourist’s behavior.
A destination “your mother would rather you stayed away from”
Tour companies stress that travel to North Korea is safe, despite rising political tensions between the country and the United States.
Jean Lee, who opened the Associated Press news bureau in Pyongyang and is now a lecturer at Yonsei University in Seoul, said trips to the country can be dangerous.
“I think all foreigners are at risk,” Lee said. “It’s probably less a reflection of who we are than what’s happening in their country.”
A tourist’s behavior can be affected by the amount of information his tour group offers him. In the case of Young Pioneer Tours, the group offers no disclaimers on its site about risk associated with travel to the DPRK.
Carelessness is a significant factor in tour groups’ lack of preparation for their tourists, Keats said. These groups tend not to come from within the travel business.
“They’re just other young males who thought it was exciting [and] interesting to go to North Korea, and so they’ve started organizing groups,” Keats said. “For whatever reason a bunch of them don’t seem to have focused on the briefings ... as [much as is] necessary to protect the safety of their participants.”
This can be due to the marketing of these tours, Keats said.
“There’s an element with a bunch of these tours that emphasize the young males in their 20s-30s who are just looking for adventure and fun,” Keats said.
Dundon said Uri Tours provides its travelers with “a comprehensive set of pre-departure orientation materials” and stresses respecting local customs and following instructions.
Alek Sigley, director of Tongil Tours based in Canberra, Australia, said his company distributes a reading list with academic and non-academic materials, as well as organizing in-person and online seminars. Sigley noted that other groups may not be as thorough.
“Unfortunately, some of our competitors do not [prepare tourists],” Sigley said in an email statement. “As far as I am aware only a few of them encourage their tourists to read up on North Korea, or organize seminars or anything similar.”
For companies leading tours, informing potential tourists of the risks could hurt business.
“I think the tour groups are treading a fine line between needing to run a business, wanting to run a business and make money, and being responsible in telling their tourists exactly how dangerous it is,” Lee said. “I do think some tour groups are better than others at providing that kind of education.”
Instructing Americans how to behave can be awkward, especially since Americans are accustomed to Western ideals of freedom of speech, Lee said.
“We as Americans can’t comprehend how hard it is to stick to their rules,” Lee said. “I think it does show that this is a place where tourism agencies have to be very honest with their tourists about what the country is like.”
Lee said it can be hard for tourists who come from countries with freedom of speech to conduct themselves in a country where free speech and free movement is strictly controlled.
Keats also noted the importance of briefing tourists about North Korean culture.
“The problem is, you’re in North Korea, the guides, I mean, everybody’s sort of friendly and everybody acts nice and all that sort of stuff, but all of a sudden, you could cross a line — just like that,” Keats said.
For potential travelers and tour groups alike, trips to North Korea can raise significant ethical questions.
Critics of travel to North Korea argue spending currency in the country promotes its regime.
A second concern is the impact of foreign visitation on North Koreans themselves, who could potentially come under scrutiny depending on how they interact with tourists.
In regards to hard currency, most tour groups contend the money is too minimal an amount to have an impact, and that cultural exchange outweighs this issue.
“We have good visibility on where our tour dollars are going,” Dundon said. “The extent of any remainder is in our opinion a quite de minimis amount.”
Regardless of amount, where the money ends up is also up for debate.
“Money spent in North Korea does not simply ‘go to the regime,’” Sigley said. “The North Korean economy is much more dynamic and complex than people might initially conceive. Money spent on tourism … may also be invested in other businesses … contributing to the diversification and growth of North Korea’s economy.”
Still, critics are wary of this counterargument.
“In North Korea, you are handing money over in a lump sum to the tour agency, so this could be Young Pioneer Tours, or Uri Tours or Koryo Tours, for example, as part of a package, and you’ve already paid a lump sum to the state — one of the state-run tourism agencies in North Korea,” Lee said. “So there’s just no way to know where that money is going.”
For North Koreans, Western travel into their country can be good and bad — on one hand bringing exposure to the outside world and on the other creating the possibility of heightened scrutiny at home.
“[Tours are] this mechanism for people-to-people contact, where North Koreans can see or interact with foreigners and get a very, very small glimpse of the outside world, because it’s so closed off and isolated,” Pinkston said.
However, uneducated tourists could endanger the North Koreans with whom they interact.
“Tourists, foreigners, they go there once in their lives, and they’re not thinking about North Koreans. Frankly, they’re just thinking about themselves and what they’re going to get out of it, and they don’t think about the risk that they put the North Koreans in with their pranks,” Lee said. “If you say and do something in front of your guide that is illegal, the guide is going to get in trouble as well.”
The level of trouble facing a North Korean citizen depends on the interaction. Tourists who deviate from traveling with their assigned guides to interact with local North Koreans could cause those locals to be questioned by police. This could even lead to those individuals being sent to labor camps, Keats said.
“You actually are endangering local people by exercising our non-North Korean freedoms,” Keats said. “If you as a foreigner are going there and putting a North Korean in danger of that happening to them, I would say that’s a pretty immoral act.”
While most tour groups feature a note on the ethics of travel to North Korea in their websites’ frequently asked questions sections, Young Pioneer Tours does not.
Could current events deter travel?
An important question for tour groups traveling to North Korea is whether foreign policy issues or an increase in detainments should deter travel. Recently, the United Nations and the United States issued sanctions against North Korea for accelerating its nuclear weapons program. Despite this and Warmbier’s detainment, Young Pioneer Tours and its competitors have not suspended travel to the DPRK.
Given current events, Lee said this is “a particularly dangerous time to go” to North Korea.
Dundon said Uri Tours has been in operation for over 15 years, and its tours have not been impacted by international events relating to the DPRK.
“One of the most interesting aspects of DPRK travel is that events of the kind that are typically reported in the media about the DPRK usually have almost zero effect on travel conditions on the ground, and recent events are no exception,” Dundon said.
On its website, YPT describes North Korea as welcoming regardless of the political circumstances.
“Even during tense political moments, tourism to the DPRK is never affected,” the site reads.
Though detainments have increased in recent years, these detainments have not necessarily been arbitrary from a North Korean perspective.
“As you can see, they’re not detaining people randomly. It’s not like saying is it safe to go to Egypt, or Israel, or Syria, Iraq or Libya — I mean, you can get killed in those places, you can get killed in Mexico,” Keats said.
Individuals and tour companies are responsible for educating themselves on acceptable practices in the country, Keats said.
“The problem is, if you’re going to go, then you better have your act together,” Keats said. “So that, I think, does put a premium on ... knowing what you can and can’t do, and it puts a premium on the tour companies making sure they brief people and [send] somebody with them to monitor them.”
Even though American tourist Matthew Miller was detained following a trip with Uri Tours in 2014, Dundon said this behavior was anomalous, as Miller tore up his visa while going through customs.
“This behavior is of course inconsistent with our DPRK travel guidelines, and so we don't feel that his detainment was indicative of risks facing our travelers generally,” Dundon said.
No tourist traveling with Tongil Tours has ever been detained.
“We are convinced this is because of our detailed pre-trip briefing process,” Sigley said.
Detainments can also further anti-American sentiment or propaganda in North Korea, Pinkston said.
“It just feeds into their kind of echo chamber of, you know, ‘look, Americans are bad, and evil, and they’re not trustworthy, look at the hypocrisy, they’re just a bunch of criminals,’” Pinkston said.
“The budget North Korea tour operator”
Following Warmbier’s sentencing, the State Department reiterated its existing travel advisory against U.S. travel in North Korea but has not officially banned travel to the country.
Despite the United States’ stance, in Young Pioneer Tours’ FAQ section under the question “I’m American. Is this a problem?” the company does not mention the State Department’s advisory or describe the history of U.S.-North Korean relations.
In the same FAQ, the organization also describes North Korea as “one of the safest places on Earth to visit.”
Following Warmbier’s sentencing, YPT issued a statement on its website, saying the group is “continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr. Warmbier.”
The self-proclaimed “budget North Korea tour operator” has not stated whether they will alter their vetting process, training procedures or suspend tours as a result of Warmbier’s detainment and sentencing.
Young Pioneer Tours declined to comment for this story.