FOLLOWING the death of US university student Otto Warmbier in North Korea last month, the local tour group that hosted him is apprehensive about receiving American tourists.
Warmbier, who was traveling in North Korea, was arrested for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel room. He was then sentenced to 17 months of hard labor in March 2016 before falling into a coma.
He was sent back to his home city, Cincinnati, Ohio, and died days later without regaining consciousness. Despite weeks having followed his death, the mystery over what actually happened in North Korea when he was detained still surrounds the case.
Young Pioneer Tours, the China-based company that took Warmbier on a five-day tour, released a statement following his death:
“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. Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.”
The company has often boasted about offering “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from”.
Its founder Gareth Johnson has been thrust into the spotlight following Warmbier’s death.
Warmbier’s father said at a press conference upon his son’s return: “This Chinese company has slick ads on the Internet, claiming no American ever gets detained.
“They lure Americans. And that’s what happened to my son. He was trying to leave the country and he was taken hostage. They advertise it as the safest tour ever. But they provide fodder for the North Koreans. They took him hostage, and the outcome is self-evident.”
In an interview with Vice last year, Johnson said his company was the “second-biggest player in North Korea” and refused to speak to about Warmbier’s arrest.
He appeared to have shifted the blame on Warmbier: “If I bring guests that are respectful, willing to listen, willing to interact with people, North Koreans will see we are normal people as well.”
Disturbing testimonies have emerged in the past about Johnson’s behavior while bringing tourists around. According to South China Morning Post, British tourist Adam Pitt who visited North Korea with the company, said Johnson appeared to be “pretty much blind drunk” the whole time.
Another incident highlighted by Pitt suggested Johnson had bribed border security guards, an account Johnson has disputed.
Recently, Republican and Democratic United States congressmen introduced a Bill that would ban Americans from traveling to North Korea as tourists and require them to obtain special permission for other types of visits.
Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Joe Wilson said their proposed North Korea Travel Control Act followed the detention of at least 17 Americans in North Korea in the past decade.
The totalitarian state has a record of using detained Americans to extract high-profile visits from the US, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations.
Given North Korea’s “demonstrated willingness to use American visitors as bargaining chips to extract high-level meetings or concessions, it is appropriate for the US to take steps to control travel to a nation that poses a real and present danger to American interests,” the congressmen said in a statement.