North Korea: A Lesson in Tourism and Foreign Affairs

On Monday, June 19th, just days after being returned home from detainment in North Korea, 22-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has died.

What was most unusual about his return home though, was the fact that Warmbier came back in a comatose state, marking the first time a North Korean detainee has returned to domestic soil in such a state.

Warmbier was a member of the Young Pioneers Tours group, a Chinese-based organization that sends tourists to North Korea.

On its website, the company promised North Korea is the safest places on Earth to visit. They also insisted that despite restrictions, U.S. citizens shouldn’t have an issue traveling to and within North Korea.

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As I was drafting this piece, though, the company changed the response of their question to reflect the political climate of the country. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I was able to obtain a screenshot of the original FAQ response.

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What irks me is that despite wordsmithing and a policy change, the Young Pioneers did not falter from the talking point that North Korea is safe. And at the time my writing this blog, the company didn’t make a strenuous effort to remove any hint of their claims of “Budget tours to destinations your mother wants you to stay away from!” as it could still be found in many of the administrator’s bios.

The pitch is enticing, but I find their optimism about the safety of North Korea (specifically for U.S. citizens) revolting.

While it may be easy to mock Warmbier (I’m looking at you, Kinfolk Kollective)  it’s important to realize that not everyone has a great understanding of our relationship with North Korea, beyond the superficial fact that Kim Jong-Un is an authoritarian leader.

Warmbier’s death will likely affect U.S. policy toward North Korea. creating a dominio effect on our relations withChina, a North Korean ally, which President Donald Trump has already strained.

The U.S. has had hostile relations with North Korea since the Korean War. As of this moment, Sweden acts as a protecting power for the U.S. against North Korea. The U.S. State Department also claims that “most forms of U.S. economic assistance, other than purely humanitarian assistance, are prohibited.” The U.S. has also imposed a total economic embargo against North Korea. Just a month before Warmbier returned home, the State Department released travel advisory, warning citizens not to travel to the country. “Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, the U.S. government has no means to provide normal consular services to U.S. citizens.”

The advisory goes on to inform citizens that the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang would be a sanction in the event of an emergency. Unfortunately, North Korea was slow to allow Sweden consular access to Warmbier and the three other detainees. The State Department points out that North Korea often delays and or denies such access.

The advisory also lists ways a citizen could end up detained ranging from showing disrespect to the nation’s leaders and government to shopping at stores where foreigners are not permitted to be.

In 2016, former President Barack Obama enacted the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016. Just a month later, Warmbier would be sentenced to 15 years hard labor. This would lead U.S. government officials to believe that Warmbier’s arrest and sentencing was a political statement against the sanctions.  It’s not clear though if there were other Americans on the tour with him.

Young Pioneers are very wrong in referring to his detainment and death as a recent or new occurrence. Other United States citizens have been detained long before Warmbier. At this moment, three U.S. citizens are still detained today. The fact that he was the first from their tour to be arrested should not be their baseline.

Otto Warmbier did not deserve to be imprisoned, let alone die.  The Young Pioneers have a lot more work to do beyond removing travel options from their website. His death presents an unfortunate lesson to the Young Pioneers: knowledge of diplomacy is more important to your customers than a cheap vacation that would make their mothers angry.  The true risks need to be clearly spelled out.

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