The DPRK Managing Director of Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), the company which brought the now-released Otto Warmbier into North Korea, has said that the group still believes the country is safe as long as precautions are taken, speaking to NK News over email on Friday.
In the group’s first extended statement since Warmbier was released, Troy Collings, whose company brought Otto Warmbier into the DPRK in January last year, said YPT were “obviously extremely upset” by the situation of the 22-year-old, who doctors say suffered severe brain damage while in captivity in the North.
“…we have had one arrest in ten years and have safely taken over 8000 other tourists to the country,” said Collings. “We still believe it’s a safe country to visit – tourists are not targets for crime, or terrorist attack.”
Otto Warmbier was released after serving 17 months of a 15-year prison sentence in North Korea on Tuesday, with news quickly emerging that he had been in a coma since his last public appearance in March last year when he stood trial for “hostile acts” against the country.
The student was arrested on his way out of the country, reportedly for tearing down a political slogan in a staff-only section of Pyongyang’s Yangakdo Hotel.
As news of Warmbier’s situation emerged the group has come under criticism for allegedly downplaying the danger of arbitrary detention and the severity of North Korea’s laws. In the FAQ section of its website, the company says that visiting the DPRK is “Extremely safe!” – a claim that YPT maintains is still true.
Warmbier’s father Fred in a press conference yesterday strongly criticized YPT for the claim, saying the company “provides fodder” for the North Koreans.
YPT describes itself on its website an “adventure travel company”, and sells itself as offering “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
The company has also been criticized for encouraging irresponsible behavior while in-country. One recent post on social media, since deleted but saved by the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield, advertises a tour involving a visit to the Taedonggang Beer Festival with the caption “We’ll drink to that!”
“The post was removed as we became aware of Otto’s condition from the media, as a matter of tactfulness and respect,” Collings said, adding that the beer festival “provides a great opportunity for tourists to interact with locals, which is the reason why we were promoting it.”
When asked whether YPT is clear with its tourists on the dangers of minor infractions while in North Korea, Collings told NK News that the company has “always” conducted briefings and provided written information about the DPRK’s “laws and customs” before taking bookings – which visitors are now required to sign “so we can be confident they have read it through.”
The document, excerpts of which were shared with NK News, tells customers that during their trip they are expected to “not show any disrespect for the local political ideology and their leaders” and warns them to “stay clear of any areas marked as “Staff Only”.”
“Customer acknowledges that whilst present in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, visitors are subject to the laws of the country and any infringement on said laws will result in serious consequences for us, for the infringer, for the rest of the group and for our Korean tour guides,” it adds.
“We do our utmost to inform and protect our customers before they book the tour,” said Collings. “However like most tour agencies operating in most countries, we aren’t able to protect those deemed to have contravened the law.”
Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Health Center told a press conference yesterday that Warmbier was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”, and that tests had shown “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain.”
They also said there was “no sign” that he had contracted botulism – a rare bacterial illness that, North Korea has claimed, he had fallen ill with while in prison. DPRK authorities claimed his coma was caused by taking a sleeping pill – something Warmbier’s family has said they don’t believe is true.
Edited by Chad O’Carroll