Traveling to North Korea is a risky way to spend A vacation. It’s a country where things can happen beyond the reach of anyone’s help. No governments AND not even guides CAN SAVE YOU out there.
The death of American college student Otto Warmbier last month, which occurred largely while being held in custody by the North Korean government, was a shocking reminder of the risks associated with traveling to North Korea. The circumstances surrounding the “severe brain injury,” which ultimately caused Mr. Warmbier’s death are unknown and, perhaps, unknowable.
Mr. Warmbier was arrested on January 2, 2015 for “anti-government activities” while traveling in Pyongyang. Most reports suggest that Mr. Warmbier stole a sign from an off-limits hallway at the Yanggakdo Hotel, where he was staying with his tour group. There are further reports suggesting that alcohol may also have been a factor.
I’ve stayed at the Yanggakdo where Mr. Warmbier’s prank was alleged to have occurred. I’ve also worked as a trip leader for a company that leads tours in North Korea. This past spring, I led a group to participate in the Mangyongdae Prize International (“Pyongyang”) Marathon and personally ran the 10K through the streets of the North Korean capital. There were hundreds of runners from over the world participating, including our group of 20, and each year thousands of international travelers visit North Korea. There are, unsurprisingly, considerable restrictions on what you can and cannot do.
He did not deserve what he got. But neither does the climber swept away in an avalanche on Everest. Or the kayaker who drowns running a rapid. The vacationer killed in a terrorist attack in a usually tranquil city. Or the honeymooner shot and killed in an attempted armed robbery in the United States.
The North Korean guides—who are also under considerable pressure—are responsible for the behavior of their charges during the trip. This can be a challenge for many travelers, especially the type of adventurous, experienced, independent traveler who often feels unfairly constrained as part of a “group tour.” If wishing made it so, all travelers would have the freedom to explore North Korea on their own, meeting as many people as possible, visiting remote places, seeing the country as it is. But that just isn’t possible.
Mr. Warmbier’s death was a tragedy. He was the victim of a government that does not understand rule of law the way most other countries do. He did not in any way deserve to be arrested, much less killed. He did not deserve what he got. But neither does the climber swept away in an avalanche on Everest. Or the kayaker who drowns running a rapid. The vacationer killed in a terrorist attack in a usually tranquil city. Or the honeymooner shot and killed in an attempted armed robbery in the United States. There are risks in all travel. Some places more than others. North Korea more than most.
I’ve been asked a few times whether or not I will go back to North Korea as a guide. I’m not sure how to answer. There is clearly a greater—and possibly now increased—risk for me as an American citizen . Many companies that work in North Korea are reconsidering whether to allow Americans to travel with their group. There are concerns about the operators themselves.
The company I’ve worked for—which is going to remain nameless, as I do not speak for them, except to say they were not the company used by Mr. Warmbier—has always exhibited the highest level of professionalism, commitment to safety and care for their clients. Is that the same as eliminating all risk? No. But I feel confident when I travel with them that the risk is minimized as much as possible.
Like the climber on Everest, listening to the local guides is the first key to safety. They know what’s inbounds and what’s not. Ignoring their advice is a good way to increase risk. The experience and professionalism of the trip leaders is also important. It’s not about how well they party with the group or if they have a joke or bit of local knowledge ready to go at a moment’s notice. It’s about how well they are trained to react in a crisis.
At least 90% of what a trip leader or guide is paid for never happens on the average trip, which is the ability to act in a proactive manner to safeguard the group when things go wrong. Still, even the best trip leaders are not always able to completely eliminate risk.
Finally, there is the question of why go at all? Is it simply thrill seeking? Bucket list chasing? Maybe. But I think there’s also an important contribution to be made. International visitors—however constrained—are pinpricks of light in a closed society. Maybe things won’t change overnight—or even in the immediate future.
Nevertheless, referencing the experiences of formerly shut societies around the world suggests that it is this kind of contact that acts as solvents on the bonds that keep people closed off from the world.