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Are tourists safe in North Korea – or unwitting pawns in the regime’s game?

 North Korean tour guide talks in front of the Reunification Monument in Pyongyang in 2005. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty ImagesNorth Korean tour guide talks in front of the Reunification Monument in Pyongyang in 2005. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

An American university student’s recent arrest in North Korea has rekindled questions about whether US tourists who visit the country are unwittingly offering themselves up as valuable pawns in Pyongyang’s political game.

The detention of Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia economics student who spent his christmas holiday in North Korea, comes at a particularly difficult time in relations between the US and DPRK.

Just days after his detention in early January the North conducted what it said was its first H-bomb test, an act of provocation that further isolated the country from the international community.

According to Warmbier’s travel agency, Young Pioneer Tours, the student was almost boarding his plane home when North Korean officials pulled him aside and arrested him for allegedly committing a “hostile act” against the state.

Authorities later said Warmbier is under investigation after he acted with the “tacit connivance of the US government and under its manipulation.”

Troy Collings, director of Young Pioneer tours, said they couldn’t comment on the case but emphasised that “every arrest [of a tourist ] that has occurred has, to our knowledge, been with context.”

Despite Warmbier’s detention none of the major North Korean travel agencies have cancelled their upcoming trips, stressing that almost all Americans who travel to the DPRK return home without incident.

The US state department currently “strongly recommends against all travel to the DPRK” due to the “risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the DPRK’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.”


Young Pioneer Tours says Warmbier is the first of its 7,000 clients over the past eight years to face arrest.

New Jersey-based Uri Tours also said that it has had only one such case in 15 years – American Matthew Miller, who ripped up his tourist visa on arrival in what he has said was a deliberate attempt to get arrested.

“We serve about 1,000 travellers per year on average to the DPRK,” Uri Tours CEO, Andrea Lee, said. “We’ve taken many American tourists and with the exception of Matthew Miller, they’ve all returned safely with positive feedback.”

About 40% of the company’s travel clients are American, but Lee said American visitors are not treated differently from other tourists.

“Critics claim that tourism is an avenue for the DPRK government to arrest Americans as political hostages. However, this has not been our experience,” she said.

Political negotiation

As the two countries have no diplomatic relations, senior US officials are often required to fly to North Korea to personally negotiate the release of their citizens.

Former president Bill Clinton was forced to make a visit to Pyongyang to secure the release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling in 2009. Both had crossed the border from China illegally.

Jeffrey Fowle was also detained for six months in 2014 for leaving a bible in a local club – an act considered to be a criminal offence in the DPRK. He was only let go after US spy chief James Clapper negotiated his release alongside the Korean-American missionary, Kenneth Bae. – theguardian –

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