Gung-ho culture at Otto Warmbier's tour agency on North Korean trip

Company offered 'booze cruises,' scuba trips
Posted at 9:39 AM, Jun 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-21 09:39:30-04

BEIJING -- Beer-soaked "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 featuring drinking games with cheery locals.

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

But the death last week of 22-year-old Hamilton County man 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.

RELATED: This is the last video taken of Warmbier before his arrest in North Korea

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 organization, 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.

RELATED: Coroner: Warmbier family objected to autopsy

Adam Pitt, a 33-year old British expatriate who formerly lived in Beijing and went on a 2013 trip, described to the AP 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.

While it's expected for tourists to relax and enjoy a few drinks while traveling, tour operators and tourists say YPT has long stood out for its party-hearty tour groups. In respective interviews with Fairfax Media and the Independent newspaper, Nick Calder, a New Zealander, and Darragh O Tuathail, an Irish tourist, both recalled the YPT group Warmbier traveled with carousing until early morning. O Tuathail declined to discuss his recollections of the trip with the AP, saying he wanted to let Warmbier's family grieve in peace.

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.'"

RELATED: McCain: Americans 'stupid' to travel to North Korea

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-emphasize 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 5-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 U.S. 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.

Christopher Barbara, a legal consultant who splits his time between Montreal and Shanghai, said he joined a YPT trip to North Korea in 2009 headed by Johnson.

"It was so laid back that it was hard to take seriously," Barbara said. "The way Young Pioneers managed the trip made it feel like the priority was having fun, not staying safe. I'm not sure it was the right balance, all things considered."

One morning after they arrived, Barbara told the group's North Korean minders who were looking for Johnson that he was ill, when he was in fact asleep after a long night.

"I was worried that Gareth's behavior was going to get us in trouble," Barbara said. "At times, I felt pressured to cover for him."

Questionable behavior has cropped up more recently, including on the New Year's Party tour of Pyongyang in late December 2015 that coincided with the tour that Warmbier was part of.

In an anonymous January 2016 review left on TripAdvisor, a woman who took a train back to China said a YPT guide pulled a prank by helping hide her husband's passport from border agents. That resulted in a scramble to find the passport and a confrontation with irked North Korean soldiers who briefly held her husband.

Troy Collings, a partner at the tour company, responded to the review on TripAdvisor and apologized, saying that the guide who participated in the prank had been removed from tours and would undergo "retraining."

"We as company in no way condone any behavior that makes our customers feel unsafe, in danger, or that our guide lacked empathy with you," Collings wrote. "Whilst we feel there may have been some misunderstandings it does not excuse what happened."