North Korea Tour Options Dwindle for Americans. But Not by Much.

June 26, 2017

By SHIVANI VORA New York Times


When Otto Warmbier died this week after a long detention in North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours, the company that arranged his trip there, announced that it would no longer sell such excursions to United States citizens. But it hardly spells the end of American tourism in North Korea.

United States citizens undaunted by travel to a region hostile to them still have plenty of other options: At least four other companies say they will continue to take Americans to North Korea despite the death of Mr. Warmbier and the detention of three other Americans by the country’s regime.

The companies — the New Jersey-based Uri Tours; Lupine Travel and Secret Compass, both based in Britain; and Koryo Tours, which works out of Beijing — cater to a small but dedicated market of travelers who like to go well beyond the beaten path to places with which the United States has an active military or diplomatic conflict. The companies sell tourists on the promise of a voyage rather than a vacation, an experience largely unmediated by the Western hospitality industry and unlikely to populate many Instagram feeds.

“A trip to North Korea breaks down the stereotypes you hear about the country,” said Tom Bodkin, a founder of Secret Compass, which introduced its North Korea trips last fall.

Continue reading the main story

The inaugural 13-day itinerary included a mix of sightseeing in Pyongyang, with attractions including Kim II Sung Square, the Pyongyang Metro (said to be the world’s deepest metro system), and the Arch of Triumph, which commemorates Kim Il Sung’s role in resisting Japanese rule between 1925 and 1945. The bulk of the time, however, is spent hiking and camping on Mount Myohyang and Mount Kumgang.

The pitch worked on Gautham Chandra, a United States citizen who lives in Fords, N.J., who took the trip and described it as incredible. “I like to go to unique places,” he said, “and I was curious about North Korea because so few people go.”

He found that it lived up to its billing. “The mountains are the most breathtaking I have ever seen, and the fall colors were beautiful,” he said. “Also, I found the locals to be friendly and welcoming.”

Mr. Chandra is not the only one. Andrea Lee of Uri tours said her customers were drawn to the idea of socializing with North Koreans. “For our clients, to be able to interact with someone who comes from a completely different background from their own and relate on a basic human level is quite moving,” she said. “Our clients often return saying that the experience was thought-provoking, unique, meaningful and safe.”

The tour companies that still take Americans to North Korea said that they are well aware of the risk. The general manager of Koryo Tours, Simon Cockerell, who has been to North Korea more than 160 times, said in an email that the company pays “particular attention to detail when it comes to ensuring those traveling to North Korea with us are fully prepared and informed as to the risks and regulations involved.”

The company’s tours have some built-in protections. Its more than 30 group departures to North Korea follow the prearranged itinerary, are accompanied by at least two state-registered North Korean guides and a Koryo staff member and require travelers to abide by rules such as the prohibition against taking photographs of the military.

Lupine Travel says it is not exactly throwing caution to the wind, either. After Mr. Warmbier’s death, its managing director, Dylan Harris, said that United States citizens are no longer permitted on private tours because they would be accompanied only by North Korean tour guides and none of Lupine’s staff. “Therefore, we believe the risk is now too high without one of our staff alongside to advise throughout the trip and monitor how they are behaving,” he said. Americans can, however, go on its group tours.

Mr. Harris said that Lupine Travel had taken roughly 2,500 travelers to North Korea since the company began in 2008 without any incidents, but acknowledged that United States citizens had to be more on guard than people from other countries. “ “Any other nationality that commits a misdemeanor in North Korea is likely to either be ignored or result in a reprimand or deportation,” he said, “but a U.S. citizen is much more likely to face arrest and jail for the same thing.”

Mr. Warmbier was taken into custody in 2015 because he tried to remove a propaganda poster from a hotel wall, according to the North Korean authorities.

It is unclear if that is true, but one traveler said he understood the impulse. John, a retired investment banker who is a United States citizen living in Budapest and would speak only on the condition that he be identified solely by his given name, violated the rule of not taking pictures of the military when he went there in 2014. “I took a picture of soldiers marching by, and a government agent came up to me and grabbed me by the neck and screamed,” he said. “She let me go, but what happened with Otto could have easily happened to me.”

Still, John said he left North Korea “wowed” by the country.

Americans are strongly discouraged from traveling to North Korea. The State Department warns that United States citizens in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement. This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the D.P.R.K.’ ”

The warning adds that “being a member of a group tour or using a tour guide will not prevent North Korean authorities from detaining or arresting you.”

And Chris Berry, a senior director at the security consulting firm Kroll, said: “This is an unstable regime and one that’s hostile toward United States residents. Travelers will be under surveillance, and their electronic devices may be searched. It would be prudent for travelers not to go.”

Senator Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said this week that he would examine whether Americans should be banned from traveling to the country outright. “Tourist travel to North Korea is a very bad idea,” he said in a statement. “Our office is taking a very close look at what travel restrictions should be put in place and is in the process of developing legislative language.”

For people who delight in such trips, that would be a loss. “I wasn’t scared when I was there — I was excited to be there,” said Mr. Chandra, who went on the Secret Compass trip. He added that while Mr. Warmbier’s death is tragic, he would “absolutely” visit North Korea again.