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North Korea

We’ll stop taking US citizens to North Korea, says Otto Warmbier’s Chinese travel agency

Risk for travellers from US now too high, company says in wake of student’s death following release from detention

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 11:46am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 11:07pm

The Chinese-based tour agency that took US student Otto Warmbier to Pyongyang said on Tuesday it would stop taking Americans to the reclusive state after the 22-year-old died following 18 months in North Korean detention.

One other tour agency said it was reviewing the issue of US citizens travelling to Pyongyang and would ensure travellers from other countries were fully aware of the risk they could face.

Warmbier was in a coma when he was medically evacuated to the United States last week, with severe brain damage. He died six days later in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, with US President Donald Trump blaming Pyongyang’s “brutal regime” for his plight.

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“We have been struggling to process the result,” Young Pioneer Tours, the travel agency that took Warmbier to North Korea, said in a Facebook post.

The University of Virginia student was arrested at the airport as he was leaving Pyongyang in January last year and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour at a show trial for stealing a political poster from a hotel.

“There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that ended with such tragic finality,” the company said.

“Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high,” it said, adding, “we will no longer be organising tours for US citizens to North Korea”.

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Beijing-based Koryo Tours, which also takes groups to North Korea, said Warmbier did not deserve the “disproportionate sentence given to him, and what followed was a disgrace, which we categorically condemn”.

“We are discussing this matter frankly with our Korean travel partners and the foreign organisations active in Pyongyang that we liaise with, and are currently reviewing the issue of US citizens travelling to North Korea,” it said on its website on Tuesday.

“We continue to take all steps necessary to ensure those who travel with us are fully aware of the risks involved and have all the information they need.”

Young Pioneer Tours, which advertised North Korea as “probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit”, came under fire after Warmbier was released.

Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, criticised the agency for advertising the trips as extremely safe, when in reality it was providing fodder for the North Korean regime.

J Scott Burgeson, a US author based in Seoul, who visited the North for eight days with the company in December 2015, defended the agency.

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He called the staffer who helped organise his tour “extremely professional and detail-orientated”, and said the company was “completely blameless”.

“What no one anticipated was that Warmbier would wander off into a closed-off staff area. I don’t see how they [Young Pioneer Tours] should be liable or culpable for such a flagrant transgression,” Burgeson said.

“Their website may promote a more adventurous kind of experience in North Korea to attract a certain kind of traveller, but obviously tourists are briefed before entry about all the risks and guidelines to be strictly followed.”

Pyongyang claimed Warmbier fell into a coma soon after he was sentenced last year, saying he had contracted botulism and been given a sleeping pill.

Medical tests carried out last week in the US offered no conclusive evidence as to the cause of his neurological injuries, and no evidence of a prior botulism infection. Warmbier’s doctors said he had suffered extensive tissue loss in all regions of his brain, but showed no signs of physical trauma.

They said Warmbier’s severe brain injury was most likely – given his young age – to have been caused by cardiopulmonary arrest cutting the blood supply to the brain.

Additional reporting by Agence France Presse