New Calls to Ban Tourist Travel to North Korea After Otto Warmbier’s Death

Patrick Goodenough | June 19, 2017 | 9:19pm EDT
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Tourists pose with North Korean children in front of bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang. (Photo: Young Pioneer Tours)

( – The U.S. government should ban tourist travel to North Korea, House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) said Monday following news that Otto Warmbier, the American student released from a North Korean prison last week and returned home in a coma, has died.

The 22-year-old from Cincinnati reportedly fell into a coma soon after being sentenced in March 20016 to 15 years’ hard labor after a North Korean court convicted him of hostile “acts against the state.” His alleged crime: the removal of a propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel.

Warmbier’s family only recently became aware of this condition, and the Trump administration secured his release and return home six days ago.

The Kim Jong-un regime asserted that his condition was the result of taking a sleeping table after suffering botulism, but his family and specialists in Cincinnati cast doubts on the claim.

Warmbier traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based tour company specializing in budget trips to the reclusive Stalinist country, aimed at the younger end of the market.

President Trump expressed his and First Lady Melania Trump’s “deepest condolences” to his family.

“There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life,” he said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him.

“Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency,” the president said. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

Royce also expressed his condolences to the family.

Otto’s father [Fred Warmbier] is right,” he said. “Travel propaganda lures far too many people to North Korea. This is a regime that regularly kidnaps foreign citizens and keeps 120,000 North Koreans in barbaric gulags.  The United States should ban tourist travel to North Korea.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who together with special representative on North Korea Joseph Yun played a key role in securing Warmbier’s release, appeared last Wednesday before the committee Royce chairs and said the administration was mulling whether to restrict travel to North Korea.

We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea,” he told the panel, adding that the administration has yet to reach a final conclusion.

At least three other American citizens – a businessman and two academics – are currently incarcerated in North Korea. In a statement in response to Warmbier’s passing, Tillerson said the administration holds the regime accountable for his “unjust imprisonment” and “demand[s] the release of three other Americans who have been illegally detained.”


‘Extremely safe!’

At a press conference last Thursday, Fred Warmbier was highly critical of Young Pioneer Tours, which he said promotes North Korea as a safe destination.

On its website, the company does just that:

“How safe is it? Extremely safe! Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit,” it says.

“Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of. We have never felt suspicious or threatened at any time. In fact, North Korean’s [sic] are super friendly and accommodating, if you let them into your world. Even during tense political moments tourism to the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] is never affected.”

The State Department advises “strongly” against visits by U.S. citizens to North Korea: “U.S. citizens in the DPRK are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” says the latest travel warning, updated last month.

But Young Pioneer Tours’ website Q&A says: “I’m American. Is this a problem? Not at all! Restrictions on Americans joining tours throughout the year have been lifted. U.S. citizens are allowed to travel at any time!”

Postings on the website play down of tensions arising from current events.

On April 17, for instance, it referred to verified news reports on ballistic missile tests, a major military parade marking the anniversary of the birthday of the state’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the area – along with other, fabricated reports about supposed incidents like the evacuation of Pyongyang.

“Travel to the DPRK remains unaffected by wild stories in the papers,” the company said. “Inside the country it is calm and people are carrying on as usual. The British Embassy in Pyongyang (whom we stay in frequent contact with) agree with our assessment of the situation – travel to the DPRK is still safe, provided you follow the law, which we inform all our tourists about at great lengths.”

Following Warmbier’s sentencing last year, Young Pioneer Tours pointed out it has taken more than 8,000 tourists to North Korea over a period of almost a decade, with only one arrest.

Queries sent to the company about calls to restrict Americans’ travel to North Korea brought no response by press time.

Last month U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) introduced a bill that would prohibit tourist travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea.

Wilson linked the need to restrict travel not only to the risk of imprisonment but also to the fact it provides revenue to a hostile regime.

Tourist travel to North Korea does nothing but provide funds to a tyrannical regime – that will in turn be used to develop weapons to threaten the United States and our allies, as I saw firsthand on a rare visit to Pyongyang,” he said.

The legislation, drafted before Warmbier’s release, states, “In the last ten years, at least 17 United States citizens have been detained in North Korea, and at least four citizens remain imprisoned in North Korea as of May 2017.

“These Americans traveled to North Korea for a variety of reasons, including tourism travel, lured in part by its secrecy and decades of closure to the West,” it says.

The bill accuses the regime of detaining Americans “as bargaining chips in negotiations over a variety of issues, including North Korea’s illegal nuclear weapons program and ballistic missile development, and as a way to extract diplomatic concessions.”

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