Is North Korea’s tourism industry luring Americans into a trap?

Updated 8:13 AM EDT, Tue June 20, 2017
Otto Warmbier, a student who has been imprisoned by North Korea, was set free
KCNA via Reuters
Otto Warmbier, a student who has been imprisoned by North Korea, was set free
Now playing
01:37
Unresponsive wakefulness explained
Now playing
03:44
Do the 1990s hold the key to sustainable websites?
Now playing
01:10
Watch SpaceX land its Mars rocket prototype for the first time
Now playing
05:52
The climate crisis is taking these farmers' most valuable resource
U.S. President Donald Trump works on his phone during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a roundtable discussion with Governors and small business owners on the reopening of American's small business. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Alex Wong/Getty Images
U.S. President Donald Trump works on his phone during a roundtable at the State Dining Room of the White House June 18, 2020 in Washington, DC. President Trump held a roundtable discussion with Governors and small business owners on the reopening of American's small business. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Now playing
02:37
Facebook Oversight Board: Indefinite suspension of Trump's account is 'not appropriate'
Now playing
03:41
How technology at NASA helps guide Biden on climate
Now playing
01:42
A vaccine without needles? It's on the way
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 06:  Host Conan O'Brien speaks onstage during the 5th Annual NFL Honors at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Host Conan O'Brien speaks onstage during the 5th Annual NFL Honors at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on February 6, 2016 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)
Now playing
01:48
Conan announces his last show after 30 years in late night
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Now playing
03:14
Will Trump be allowed back on Facebook? This board will decide
CNN
Now playing
05:16
WTF is a SPAC?
Now playing
01:51
A shortage of tanker truck drivers could cause stations to run out of gas
CEO at Verizon Media K. Guru Gowrappan appears at the 2019 Verizon Media NewFront on April 30, 2019 in New York City.
Noam Galai/Getty Images for Verizon Media
CEO at Verizon Media K. Guru Gowrappan appears at the 2019 Verizon Media NewFront on April 30, 2019 in New York City.
Now playing
02:47
Verizon sells off Yahoo and AOL
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, May 3, 2019. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images
Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, attends the 2019 annual shareholders meeting in Omaha, Nebraska, May 3, 2019. (Photo by Johannes EISELE / AFP) (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images)
Now playing
02:40
Warren Buffett warns on US inflation
Now playing
01:00
Astronauts splash down after record-setting mission
ATLANTA - APRIL 30:  A Boeing 757 with a new Delta Airlines logo sits on the tarmac following the company's emergence from bankruptcy at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport April 30,2007 in Atlanta, Georgia. The 757 sports new branding that will appear on more than 900 planes, at airports and on advertising.  (Photo by Barry Williams/Getty Images) 757
Barry Williams/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
ATLANTA - APRIL 30: A Boeing 757 with a new Delta Airlines logo sits on the tarmac following the company's emergence from bankruptcy at Hartsfield Jackson International Airport April 30,2007 in Atlanta, Georgia. The 757 sports new branding that will appear on more than 900 planes, at airports and on advertising. (Photo by Barry Williams/Getty Images) 757
Now playing
02:28
Why Delta airlines is resuming selling middle seats
Now playing
02:50
Grocery chain says 'hero pay' forcing them to close stores

Story highlights

Warmbier died Monday

It's unclear what his case means for Westerners who hope to travel to the Hermit Kingdom

(CNN) —  

The father of the American college student who died after being detained in North Korea believes his son was tricked into visiting the country for nefarious purposes.

“The North Koreans lure Americans to travel to North Korea via tour groups run out of China, who advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming no American ever gets detained off of our tours and this is a safe place to go,” Fred Warmbier said.

The company that organized the trip Otto Warmbier was on, Young Pioneer Tours, has since stopped offering the North Korea trip to Americans.

Warmbier, 22, had finished a five-day tour of the country and was headed to China for a visit when he was detained at Pyongyang’s airport and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster. He was released last week and North Korea said he’d been in a vegetative state for 17 months. He died a week after returning home to Ohio.

Troy Collings, the North Korea managing director for Young Pioneer Tours, denies Fred Warmbier’s claims.

“We have provided safe visits for over 8,000 tourists to North Korea in the last 10 years,” Collings said. “The claim that we are trying to lure young Americans as fodder for the Koreans is simply not true, the fact that we have only had one arrest in our history (and no further arrests since) shouldn’t be dismissed.”

Collings maintained that the company has never said that Americans “don’t get detained” in their advertisements. “In fact, we don’t target or mention Americans specifically in any of our advertising,” he added.

After news of Warmbier’s death broke, Young Pioneer Tours changed its policy on Americans going to North Korea.

“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists. 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 company said in a statement.

02:13 - Source: CNN
US student held in North Korea 'confesses'

Nascent industry

How the news of Warmbier’s condition might impact North Korea’s fledgling tourism market remains unclear.

A source in the North Korean tourism industry told CNN he’s not seen any dent in tourist numbers since Warmbier was detained, though he’s noticed a slight drop in inquiries from Americans.

That could change as Warmbier’s case gets more publicity, he said. The source asked for anonymity in order to protect the business he works for.

Americans detained in North Korea

Currently held:

  • • Kim Dong Chul, the president of a company involved in international trade and hotel services, was arrested in 2015 and is serving 10 years on espionage charges.
  • • Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, a university professor, was detained in Pyongyang in 2017 and accused of attempting to overthrow the government.
  • • Kim Hak-song, a native Korean born in China (Jin Xue Song is the Chinese version of his name) and professor working at the same university as Tony Kim was detained May 6 on suspicion of "hostile acts" against the regime.

Last year, more than 4,000 non-Chinese tourists visited North Korea overall, the source said. Some 20 to 30 international tour agencies – many based in China – currently operate tours to the reclusive state.

Young Pioneers, whose website boasts of providing “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stay away from,” is among the most popular choice of tour operators among young Westerners.

Warmbier was found guilty of committing a hostile act against the North Korean regime and sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March 2016. Authorities claimed they obtained security footage of him stealing a political banner from his hotel, which was used as evidence during his reportedly hour-long trial.

“We do our utmost to inform and protect our customers before they book the tour. However like most tour agencies operating in most countries, we aren’t able to protect those deemed to have contravened the law,” said Collings.

An untouched country

With the advent of cheap travel there’s an inherent appeal in visiting one of the world’s last remaining places unaffected by mass tourism.

“Really, you have nothing to worry about as a tourist. So long as you obey the laws of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) and do nothing to disrespect the ruling Kim family, you will be fine,” Lonely Planet says on its website.

Tourism to North Korea – especially Western tourism – has risen significantly in recent years despite international tensions regarding the country’s nuclear program.

Some go to witness specific North Korean state holidays, others for events like the Pyongyang Marathon.

All the trips are meticulously organized. Tourists are accompanied by a government-employed tour guide whenever they leave their hotel. Seven North Korean companies are licensed to partner with outside agencies – such as Young Pioneers – to operate tours.

One woman who spoke to CNN likened the city to a “movie set.”