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What Drives Americans to Travel to North Korea?

The brutal regime was never 'your mother's destination' — now a tour company will no longer take U.S. citizens there

For years, one travel company proudly boasted, “We provide budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”

One of those countries was North Korea — well-known for the brutality of its regime.

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Earlier this week, after the family of college student Otto Warmbier announced their 22-year-old son had died at a Cincinnati hospital after he was brought home in a coma from North Korea, the messages from the China-based tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, carried a far darker, more somber tone.

“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists,” the tour company wrote in a Facebook post. “There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality, and we have been struggling to process the result. Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.”

The tour company claims the North Korean government revealed “almost no” information about Warmbier’s long detainment.

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“The way his detention was handled was appalling, and a tragedy like this must never be repeated,” Young Pioneers wrote on Facebook. “Despite constant requests, we were denied any opportunity to meet him or anyone in contact with him in Pyongyang, only receiving assurances that he was fine.”

Those comments are troubling on many fronts. As an opinion piece by an Army veteran writing in OpsLens put it earlier this week:

“During a press conference, [Otto’s father] Fred Warmbier accused North Korea of luring young Americans into the country via tourist groups that operate out of China. According to Mr. Warmbier, the tourist groups utilize false advertising in their online campaigns to convince Americans that North Korea is a destination location that offers adventure and safety. He claimed these companies offer a false sense of security, promising that Americans never get detained on their tours.

“I’m always suspicious of such promises. Oddly enough, these companies also fail to mention the information that can be found on the State Department website, which warns American citizens against any travel to North Korea. Americans who plan to travel abroad should always use this resource before deciding on a destination.”

The brutal backstory. Warmbier, as many people know, was a student at the University of Virginia who signed up for a five-day tour in North Korea while on his way to China. The trip was organized by Young Pioneer Tours, which is based in China.

Warmbier was arrested in January 2016 in North Korea — detained because he allegedly took a political poster off the wall of a hotel room where he was staying in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. Last year, after he “confessed” to having committed “severe crimes,” he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a prison camp. “Warmbier was charged with trying to steal a banner featuring the name of Kim Jong-Il, the state’s former leader,” as the Daily Mail noted.

North Korean government officials finally returned a very ill Warmbier back home on June 13.

“At least we got him home to be with his parents, where they were so happy to see him even though he was in very tough condition,” President Trump said earlier this week, ahead of a meeting of high-tech CEOs.

Referring to Warmbier’s one and a half-year confinement in North Korea, Trump also said, “A lot of bad things happened … It is a brutal regime, and we’ll be able to handle it.”

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced,” the deceased young man’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said.

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Just to drive the point home one more time: The United States Department of State strongly advises that U.S. citizens not travel to North Korea.

Americans would be “at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” the State Department said in a travel warning last month. “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 [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea].'”

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