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Gung-ho tour culture of N Korea under fire

Associated Press logo Associated Press 21/06/2017 Gerry Shih

"Booze cruises" down North Korea's Taedong River, scuba diving trips off the country's eastern coast, Saint Patrick's Day pub crawls in Pyongyang - they could all be coming to an end.

Since 2008, the Young Pioneer Tours agency built up a business attracting young travellers with a competitively priced catalogue of exotic-sounding, hard-partying adventures in one of the world's most isolated countries.

But the death last week of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested during a Young Pioneer tour to North Korea in late 2015 and fell into a coma in prison, has renewed questions about whether the company was adequately prepared for its trips into the hard-line communist state.

Although many details of Warmbier's fateful trip remain unknown, interviews with past Young Pioneer customers or those who have crossed paths with the tour operator describe a company with occasional lapses in organisation, a gung-ho drinking culture and a cavalier attitude that has long raised red flags among industry peers and North Korea watchers.

Founded in 2008 by Briton Gareth Johnson in the central Chinese city of Xi'an, Young Pioneer's fun and casual style was seen precisely as its calling card, a counterpoint to North Korea's reputation as an inaccessible, draconian hermit kingdom. "Budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from", its website touts, while describing North Korea as one of the safest places on Earth.

But in travel circles in Beijing, the staging point for trips into North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours, also known as YPT, has been associated with a string of cautionary tales, including of the tourist who performed a handstand outside the most politically sensitive mausoleum in Pyongyang where two generations of the Kim family are buried, resulting in a North Korean guide losing her job. During another tour, Johnson attempted to step off a moving train after drinking and broke his ankle, leading to an unexpected stay at a Pyongyang hospital.

Adam Pitt, a 33-year old British expatriate who formerly lived in Beijing and went on a 2013 trip, described a party atmosphere led by Johnson, who was often heavily inebriated and "almost unable to stand and barely understandable when he did speak" at a tense border crossing where he needed to hand wads of cash to officials as bribes.

In an emotional news conference last week, Fred Warmbier, Otto's father, lashed out at tour agencies that "advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming, 'No American ever gets detained on our tours' and 'This is a safe place to go'."

Earlier this week, YPT issued a statement saying it would no longer accept American customers because "the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high".

Pitt, who is Mormon and does not drink, said the company's statement appeared to shift blame onto tourists rather than examining its own laissez-faire culture.

"It's not about who goes, it's about how their groups behave that causes problems," said Pitt.

YPT co-owner Rowan Beard said most reviewers have attested to the company's professionalism and preparation.

"Frankly everyone has different perceptions on things like drinking and what concerns it raises," Beard wrote in an email. "With the recent tragedy it's human nature for some people to over-emphasise certain aspects of their experience."

Beard noted that the mausoleum incident did not involve alcohol and that YPT had warned all customers about the political sensitivities of the site.

He added that YPT has taken over 8,000 tourists to North Korea with only one incident, and boasts a five-star rating and certificate of excellence on the TripAdvisor review website. Johnson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Beard said Johnson was unavailable to comment and no longer leads tours. He said Johnson was in North Korea on business when Warmbier was detained but was not part of his tour.

John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said tour groups barely existed 10 years ago, and any sliver of "responsible engagement" between the US and North Korea is valuable. But he worried about tours that do not educate customers on the nuances and political realities of what they're seeing.

"Hipster adventure tourism, where it's like going to a zoo and staring at North Koreans, is problematic," said Delury, who is familiar with several of the companies running tours into North Korea. "It seems like the framing of Warmbier's trip was 'go party and have a good time in Pyongyang.' That is obviously not how responsible tour companies would frame what they're about."

YPT has in recent years expanded its North Korea tours and boasts a long list of other so-called "dark tourism" offerings, ranging from trips to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine to jaunts through Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region.

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