The travel company that took University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier to North Korea said Monday that it is wrangling with the 22-year-old's death and will no longer take Americans to North Korea.
For years, Young Pioneer Tours has happily boasted: "We provide budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from." On Monday, after Warmbier's family announced he'd died that afternoon at a Cincinnati hospital, the message that the China-based tour company sent via e-mail to USA TODAY wore a darker and more anguished tone.
"Our deepest sympathies are with Otto Warmbier and those who loved him," the e-mail read. "We had held onto hope that he might recover, and have the life that he should have had, but now those hopes are gone, and we too are reeling with the shock of a young man's life taken well before his time."
The e-mail continued: "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 e-mail from Young Pioneer Tours finished with: "The way his detention was handled was appalling, and a tragedy like this must never be repeated. Despite constant requests, we were denied any opportunity to meet him or anyone in contact with him in Pyongyang, only receiving assurances that he was fine. There has still been almost no information disclosed about his period in detention. Considering these facts and this tragic outcome we will no longer be organizing tours for U.S. citizens to North Korea."
Warmbier was returned to the United States from North Korea on June 13 in a coma after a 17-month detention for a "hostile act." The North Korean government claimed he'd taken a political poster from the hotel where he stayed. Warmbier was traveling to China when he signed up for a five-day North Korea trip with Young Pioneer Tours.
Gareth Johnson founded the company in 2008 seeking to create a space for people who usually shy away from group tours, according to the group's website. As a traveler, he fell in love with the people and culture of North Korea, he says. The 20 other higher ups in the company hail from The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and other places, and one is from the United States, from Albuquerque.
The company is based in Xi'an, China, but also has offices in Almaty, Khazakstan, in central Asia, Dakar, Senegal, in west Africa, Havana and, for North Korea tours, a bar and tourism office called The DMZ Bar in Yangshuo, China, that specializes in trips to North Korea. All tours begin and end in Beijing and travelers enter North Korea by train, according to the company's website. The tours offer themes ranging from politics to biking along the DMZ demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to scuba diving.
The company appears to pull from young people seeking to experience off-the-tourist-track places on a budget. Drinking is a theme too and the company's Yangshuo, China, office that specializes in North Korea doubles as a bar.
In a 2016 piece on the Vibe.com website, Johnson is quoted as saying he launched the company after finding an inexpensive way to get into Hong Kong and getting drunk with a North Korean "in charge of stuff."
Johnson grew up in a working class family in West London and at 21, left England to become a bartender in the Cayman Islands. He also did a stint in Cuba, taught English in China and has made it into Eritrea, an African country undergoing border tensions with Ethiopia.
"I feel that interaction and cultural exchange is always positive," Johnson told Vibe.
At the time, he declined to discuss Warmbier, except to say, "If I bring guests that are respectful, willing to listen, willing to interact with people, North Koreans will see that we are normal people as well."
Traveler Adam Pitt told the Consumer Affairs website of his own trip into North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours that included lots of drinking, including an inebriated Johnson who could barely stand or talk, and bribes paid to tour guards. Johnson did not immediately respond to an e-mail sent to his company account on Monday. Tour guide Rowan Beard told Consumer Affairs that Pitt's account was not factual, and that while people do drink beer on the tours, it is not excessive.
The State Department "strongly warns" United States citizens not to travel to North Korea, explaining it has no diplomatic relations with the country, that 16 U.S. citizens have been detained there in the last 10 years and that even if the government allows a traveler to bring in a cell phone, he or she will have to use a North Korean carrier, which will allow the government to monitor calls.