Did hard-partying attitude of tour companies contribute to Otto Warmbier’s fatal incarceration in North Korea?
Fred Warmbier lashed out at tour agencies operating in North Korea, who advertise ‘No American ever gets detained on our tours’ and ‘This is a safe place to go’
Beer-soaked “booze cruises” down North Korea’s Taedong River. Scuba diving trips off the country’s eastern coast. Saint Patrick’s Day pub crawls in Pyongyang featuring drinking games with cheery locals.
Since 2008, the Young Pioneer Tours agency built up a business attracting young travellers with a competitively priced catalogue of exotic-sounding, hard-partying adventures in one of the world’s most isolated countries.
But the death on Monday of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested during a Young Pioneer tour to North Korea in late 2015 and fell into a coma while in detention, has renewed questions about whether the company was adequately prepared for its trips into the hardline communist state.
Although many details of Warmbier’s fateful trip are unknown, interviews with past Young Pioneer customers or those who have crossed paths with the tour operator describe a company with lapses in organisation, a gung-ho drinking culture and a cavalier attitude that has long troubled industry peers and North Korea watchers.
Watch: US student dies days after release from North Korea
Founded in 2008 by Briton Gareth Johnson in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, Young Pioneer’s fun and casual style was seen precisely as its calling card, a counterpoint to North Korea’s reputation as a draconian hermit kingdom. “Budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,” its website touts, while describing North Korea as one of the safest places on Earth.
But the agency also known as YPT has been associated with a string of cautionary tales, including of the tourist who performed a handstand outside the most politically sensitive mausoleum in Pyongyang where two generations of the Kim family are buried, resulting in a North Korean guide losing her job.
In a July 2016 interview on the travel podcast Counting Countries, Johnson boasted of gaining notoriety after once stepping off a moving North Korean train while drunk on soju. That stunt resulted in Johnson breaking his ankle, leading to a stay at a Pyongyang hospital and visits from the British Embassy and United Nations doctors, who told Johnson he risked losing his foot within a week.
“I didn’t make [the jump], but I became a legend,” he said.
In the podcast, Johnson described himself as a 36-year old university dropout from London who travelled through Eastern Europe and lived in the Cayman Islands before arriving in North Korea for the first time a decade ago. He was immediately hooked.
“The first time you go to North Korea, it’s just an amazing experience, like nothing you’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “After that first trip I knew I wanted to take people to North Korea.”
Adam Pitt, a 33-year old British expatriate who formerly lived in Beijing and went on a 2013 trip, described to the AP a party atmosphere led by Johnson, who was often heavily inebriated and “almost unable to stand and barely understandable when he did speak” at a tense border crossing where he needed to hand wads of cash to officials as bribes.
While it’s expected for tourists to relax and enjoy a few drinks while travelling, tour operators and tourists say YPT has long stood out for its party-hearty tour groups. In respective interviews with Fairfax Media and the Independent newspaper, Nick Calder, a New Zealander, and Darragh O Tuathail, an Irish tourist, both recalled the New Year’s Party tour group Warmbier travelled with in Pyongyang in late December 2015 carousing until early morning. O Tuathail declined to discuss his recollections of the trip, saying he wanted to let Warmbier’s family grieve in peace.
On the return leg from that YPT trip, a YPT guide pulled a prank on a customer taking the train back to Beijing by helping hide her husband’s passport from border agents. That resulted in a scramble to find the passport and a confrontation with irked North Korean soldiers who briefly held the husband.
In an emotional news conference last week after Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea, his father, Fred Warmbier, lashed out at tour agencies that “advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming, ‘No American ever gets detained on our tours’ and ‘This is a safe place to go.’”
After Warmbier’s death in an Ohio hospital, YPT issued a statement saying it would no longer accept American customers because “the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.”
Pitt, who is Mormon and does not drink, said the company’s statement appeared to shift blame onto tourists rather than examining its own laissez-faire culture.
“It’s not about who goes, it’s about how their groups behave that causes problems,” said Pitt.
In response to multiple requests for comment, Johnson sent two brief emails discussing only his experiences outside of North Korea.
YPT co-owner Rowan Beard said most reviewers have attested to the company’s professionalism and preparation.
“Frankly everyone has different perceptions on things like drinking and what concerns it raises,” Beard wrote in an email. “With the recent tragedy it’s human nature for some people to over-emphasise certain aspects of their experience.”
Beard noted that the mausoleum incident did not involve alcohol and that YPT had warned all customers about the political sensitivities of the site.
He added that YPT has taken over 8,000 tourists to North Korea with only one incident, and boasts a 5-star rating and certificate of excellence on the TripAdvisor review website. Beard said Johnson was in North Korea on business when Warmbier was detained but was not part of his tour.
John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said tour groups barely existed 10 years ago, and any sliver of “responsible engagement” between the US and North Korea is valuable. But he worried about tours that do not educate customers on the nuances and political realities of what they’re seeing.
“Hipster adventure tourism, where it’s like going to a zoo and staring at North Koreans, is problematic,” said Delury, who is familiar with several of the companies running tours into North Korea. “It seems like the framing of Warmbier’s trip was ‘go party and have a good time in Pyongyang.’ That is obviously not how responsible tour companies would frame what they’re about.”
YPT has in recent years expanded its North Korea tours and boasts of other so-called “dark tourism” offerings, ranging from trips to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine to jaunts through Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region.
In another instance Johnson described on the June 2016 podcast, he led a YPT tour group into the Eastern European breakaway state of Trans-Dniester, where a confrontation with authorities escalated into a policeman pulling out a gun. Johnson talked his way out of the situation because “luckily I had my vodka overcoat on at that point, so I wasn’t that scared,” he said, referring to his drunken state.
“I really shouldn’t have as many stories about being arrested or robbed, but I’ve got quite a lot,” Johnson said in the interview.
Christopher Barbara, a legal consultant who splits his time between Montreal and Shanghai, said he joined a YPT trip to North Korea in 2009 headed by Johnson.
“It was so laid back that it was hard to take seriously,” Barbara said. “The way Young Pioneers managed the trip made it feel like the priority was having fun, not staying safe.”
One morning after they arrived, Barbara told the group’s North Korean minders who were looking for Johnson that he was ill, when he was in fact hung over and asleep after a long night.
“I was worried that Gareth’s behaviour was going to get us in trouble,” Barbara said.
Johnson has since stepped back from leading YPT tours to found another business called GN Tours – which used to be short for Gross Negligence Tours, according to cached Facebook and Google pages. Johnson said GN Tours is not associated with YPT.
GN Tours advertises itself as the leading planner of bachelor parties in Southeast Asia featuring: “Beaches, babes, bullets and booze [all cheap].”