Young Pioneer Tours offered curious travelers from the United States and other countries the rare opportunity to visit North Korea. The company organized a tour and traveled alongside University of Virginia student, Otto Warmbier. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for allegedly stealing a political banner from a hotel during the tour.
Warmbier returned to the U.S. with severe brain damage after being detained in North Korea. After news of Otto’s death made headlines, Young Pioneer Tours changed its policy on Americans going to North Korea, according to CNN.
“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists… Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.”
Otto’s roommate, Adam Pitt, questioned why there were no Young Pioneer tour guides present to witness Otto Warmbier’s detainment. As per Consumer Reports, Pitt stated, “The Daily Mail quoted his roommate as saying he was the only person to see Otto being detained… where were the Young Pioneer Tour guides?”
Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, denounced Young Pioneer Tours for the alluring ads they have on the internet that claimed no American had been detained from their tours, according to CNN.
“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.”
Dr. Calvin Sun went to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours in 2011. The group stayed for four nights at the Yanggakdo Hotel, according to ABC News.
Yanggakdo is the primary hotel for international tourists. Young Pioneer Tours led Otto Warmbier on a 2015 trip to the same Pyongyang hotel, according to ABC News.
Videos on the Young Pioneer’s YouTube channel feature activities ranging from karaoke bars to arm-wrestling matches. Again, the tour group told New York Daily News that the detainment of a U.S. citizen had been exaggerated.
“Until Otto Warmbier, there was no situation where a foreign tourist was truly endangered in the country… he reality is they would not have been detained and very few people have ever been detained. The laws that shouldn’t be broken are clear and the vast majority of people are able to respect them.”
Gareth Johnson, 36, is the founder of Young Pioneer Tours and has come under fire following the events that lead to Otto Warmbier’s death.
Adam Pitt claimed that Gareth Johnson almost got a tour party detained on a train out of North Korea. Pitt said Gareth drunkenly stuffed money into the hand of an official who was checking tourists’ cameras for unauthorized images, according to the Daily Mail.
FRIDAY: The powerful story of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died days after North Korea released him from prison in a coma pic.twitter.com/PRPnuuMYxL— 20/20 (@ABC2020) June 22, 2017
The Young Pioneer Tours website promised their clients an “unparalleled experience, fun way of doing things.” The company also advertises, “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
Dr. Sun found Young Pioneer Tours through a simple Google search. Sun said he chose Young Pioneer Tours because they were advertised as the cheapest option.
While inside the hotel’s elevator, Dr. Sun noticed the elevator did not list a fifth floor. Sun and his travel companions found a “hidden” floor via the stairwell. It was here that they discovered a number of hand-painted propaganda wall hangings.
“We were very nervous in terms of, ‘Are we supposed to be here, or are we not supposed to be here?'”
However, Sun said he was unfamiliar with the hotel hallway that appeared in the surveillance tape that allegedly showed Warmbier removing a banner. The tape that led to Otto’s imprisonment was released by North Korean officials. Dr. Sun added, “Hearing about what happened is devastating to us as travelers.”
Otto Warmbier’s father had more to say about the company’s business practices. “They lure Americans. And that’s what happened to my son. He was trying to leave the country and he was taken hostage. They advertise it as the safest tour ever. But they provide fodder for the North Koreans. They took him hostage. And the outcome is self-evident.”
[Featured Image by Chol Jin/AP Images]