North Korea

‘It could have been me’: safety questions raised over North Korea tour packages after Otto Warmbier case

Travel agencies are reviewing their policies while some have stopped taking American clients to the reclusive state

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 1:16pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 June, 2017, 10:47pm

The death of Otto Warmbier, who was returned to the United States in a coma after being detained for more than a year in North Korea, has raised questions over the safety standards of tour agencies offering trips to the hermit state.

Travel agents have announced they will either stop accepting Americans or review their policy on the matter.

According to an industry insider, some 1,000 Americans visit North Korea each year.

“It could have been me.” That was Maxwell Hugh Leary’s first thought when he came to know of the death of Warmbier last Monday.

Leary, an American who studied in Hong Kong, went to North Korea in the summer of 2014. He was 22 – a year older than Warmbier at the time of his arrest in January last year. Despite their similarities, the experiences of the two young men could hardly be more different.

Warmbier was sent home unconscious last week following 17 months in detention in North Korea.

“We don’t know exactly what happened to Otto, maybe he was set up … Maybe I could have gone through the same situation. I am obviously thankful that nothing similar happened to me,” he said.

Pyongyang accused Warmbier of stealing a propaganda poster from a wall in his hotel and he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term with hard labour. However, it is unclear what happened to him following his trial.

Leary, 25, who lived in China for nearly four years, said he went to North Korea because he wanted to learn about its people, culture and government.

“Few Americans have been to North Korea ... I felt I had the responsibility of going there and coming back to teach my country about it,” he said. “My parents did not want me to go.”

Leary was studying finance at Hong Kong Polytechnic University when he took a seven-day trip to North Korea arranged by Eastern Vision, a local travel agency.

“I was very aware of the rules and tried very hard to respect them,” he said, adding he had felt uneasy there on a few occasions. “I was afraid when I first arrived and on the last day when they checked my pictures before I left.”

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Leary, who now works in investment banking, said Warmbier’s ordeal was upsetting. “You can’t break the laws of a country,but when I heard about the things he went through, regardless of [whether he was guilty], I felt very sorry. It’s a tragedy.”

He added he was glad he had travelled with a responsible tour agency that clearly explained how to behave in the country.

Another agency, Young Pioneer Tours, which Warmbier travelled with, has been accused of prioritising fun over safety on trips to the secretive state.

Troy Collings, director of the agency based in China, told the Post it was the second-largest Western tour company operating in North Korea in terms of volume.

“We know well what is acceptable and we inform people clearly of the boundaries they should not cross,” he said.

Collings estimated that his company had taken between 4,000 to 5,000 people to North Korea over the past five years, including 800 to 1,000 Americans. But the agency has said it will no longer be organising tours for US citizens.

Other travel agents are considering similar action. “We are discussing this matter with our Korean travel partners, as well as the foreign organisations active in Pyongyang that we liaise with, and are currently reviewing the issue,” Beijing-based Koryo Tours said. US-based Uri Tours is taking a similar approach.

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The US Department of State has a warning in place advising American citizens against travelling to North Korea owing to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention.

In Hong Kong, Eastern Vision and its affiliate GLO Travel stopped accepting US passport holders once Warmbier was arrested.

“It was a rather conservative stance, but we make everyone’s safety our priority,” company co-founder Rubio Chan said. “We felt that Americans could be at a higher risk.”

He said travel in North Korea could be safe and relaxing, but visitors should be aware of the rules and act responsibly.

Given the recent controversy and increasing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang, Leary said he was concerned about aggressive moves by US President Donald Trump.

However, the current situation has not dampened his desire to return to the reclusive nation. “I would like to go back and talk to them with respect,” he said.