Travel can be broadening, but in certain places it can turn out to be confining, too. Travel to North Korea, one of the most dangerous places on earth, is particularly dangerous for tourists who don’t pay close attention to the rules.
The U.S. State Department has added new emphasis to its warning to Americans to avoid travel there as tensions grow between the United States and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as the government grandly styles itself). The arrest of Kim Hak-song, an employee of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, founded by Christian evangelicals, and an American citizen, brings to four the number of Americans now held there for infractions of the law.
The State Department says it “strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all travel to North Korea due to the serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement.” A day in Pyongyang can easily be a day without sunshine, but up to 5,000 tourists arrive each year, and perhaps a thousand of them are intrepid Americans.
Rule No. 1 for visitors is to remember that they are in a very strange land, with none of the legal and constitutional protections familiar elsewhere. A 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia learned the hard way last year that what might be dismissed as a prank at home can be a serious offense in North Korea.
Otto F. Warmbier of Cincinnati was visiting Pyongyang on a tourist visa when he was arrested for taking a propaganda poster from a hotel as a souvenir. The North Korean government, citing the theft as “a hostile act against the nation,” arrested Mr. Warmbier as he was about to board a plane at the Pyongyang airport. He was convicted by a North Korean court and sentenced to 15 years of unspecified “hard labor” in prison.
The government released a video of his tearful apology, pleading for his freedom and to be sent home. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said, sobbing, at a press conference at the People’s Palace of Culture in Pyongyang. “I committed my crime of taking out the important political slogan from the staff-only area of Yanggakdo International Hotel.”
He said he took the banner as a trophy for a member of a church who offered to buy him a used car worth $10,000 if he succeeded in getting the banner home, in an account by the official Korean Central News Agency. He said a “secret society” at the University of Virginia promised him a coveted membership if he promoted eliminating tyranny.
“I apologize to each and every one of the millions of the Korean people, and I beg that you can see how I was used and manipulated. I was used by the United States administration like many before.”
The statement had all the marks of the government’s prose style, which goes beyond heavy-handed. Mr. Warmbier went to North Korea on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel agency that advertises “budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
There actually isn’t much to see in Pyongyang, beyond statues of Kim Jong-un; his father, his predecessor, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the family dictatorship. Most tourists have a sense of the risks, a Beijing travel agent tells The New York Times. “I think people who go there know it’s not the sort of place where you just show up. We rightly assume that people who go there have knowledge of North Korea, who are doing reading about what kind of place it is.”
What it is, obviously, is a place where dark things can happen to the wary and unwary alike. A visitor who goes there and gets to leave can say that he was there, and not much else.
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