When Otto Warmbier visited North Korea for a New Year’s trip in December 2015, he joined Young Pioneer Tours, a group that promises “fun, thrill seeking and adventure at great price.” But according to several people on that fateful tour—which would see the then 21-year-old junior at the University of Virginia imprisoned for more than 17 months, later to die just days after his return to the United States—the guides might not have done enough to keep the participants safe in North Korea, a totalitarian state known mostly for its nuclear provocations and cruelty to its own people.
Two people I spoke with described a culture of recklessness and intoxication throughout the trip. “It seems partying was a bigger part of the job description than taking care of us,” said one participant, who asked to speak anonymously. Throughout the day, there would be “a fair degree of sobriety and propriety,” but during the evenings, the Western tour guides would be drinking heavily, a second participant told me. “That is another piece of the whole story, that these tour guides bear some responsibility and carried on in a less than 100 percent cautious and duly diligent manner.”
Pyongyang accused Warmbier of trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel at 1:57 a.m. on the morning of Jan. 1, 2016. In a highly choreographed February 2016 news conference, a tearful Warmbier tearfully confessed to the “very severe and pre-planned crime” of trying to steal the poster, an act he said, reading from notes, was intended to “harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.” After a sham trial several weeks later, Pyongyang convicted Warmbier of “hostile acts against the state” and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. A State Department spokesman called the sentencing “unduly harsh,” and, hours later, the Obama administration released a new, broad set of sanctions against the country – to “apply sustained pressure to the North Korean regime,” the White House said in a statement.
Not long after his sentencing, for unknown reasons, Warmbier fell into a coma. Pyongyang released him on June 13, 2017, and he died six days later; doctors say he suffered extensive brain damage. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a statement. On Thursday, a North Korean newspaper responded, calling Trump a “psychopath,” who they alleged was considering a strike on North Korea to distract from the problems he faces in the United States. (No one answered repeated phone calls to the North Korean mission to the United Nations.)
Tens of thousands of foreigners visit North Korea each year. Many are Chinese. The exact number of Americans is unknown, but it’s likely around 1,000 annually. Although the State Department strongly warns against it, and Congress is considering legislation to ban American tourism to North Korea, most of the dozens of Americans tourists I have spoken to who have visited Pyongyang over the last decade consider it to be a safe and worthwhile experience. It’s also surprisingly simple. Getting a visa, which I did before my two trips to the country in 2008 and 2011, requires sending in basic information to one of the several Western tour companies that operate in North Korea. Unguided tourism is prohibited. The Western tour guides are mostly British, and they work with North Korean tour guides – who also serve as minders, keeping a close watch on the tourists, the other guides and any North Koreans they encounter. That’s not to say entering North Korea is risk-free: Fifteen Americans are known to have been detained in the country since 2009, with the majority of those held after the current leader Kim Jong Un came to power in December 2011. The reasons the 15 were likely detained varied: some snuck into the country, while some proselytized—violating the cruel norms of North Korea. But Warmbier was the only one to die as a result of his experience.
Warmbier had taken the tour “for the same reason everybody else was there,” an American who was on the tour, and who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “He wanted to have an interesting adventure.” Ria Westergaard Pedersen, a Dutch journalist who was on that tour, recalls standing with Warmbier in front of the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, where gargantuan statues of founding leader Kim Il Sung and his son, the country’s second leader Kim Jong Il, loom over the city. Like other Western tourists to North Korea, the guides had warned them not to take photos of the military. “We really wanted just a few photos of all those uniforms,” Pedersen told a Dutch TV station. The participant and Warmbier would take turns standing next to the officials, pretending to photograph each other when in reality they were surreptitiously photographing soldiers. “We were like, ‘Oh, we’re doing a bad thing,’” Pedersen said. “He was so nervous about it! This feels so tiny compared to what were accused of, and he was nervous about it!” Interviews with six of the people who joined Warmbier on the tour paint a fuller picture of the atmosphere in the days leading up to his detention – and help answer the question of what, if any, responsibility the Western tour guides shoulder for Warmbier’s death. “I don’t know if Otto did what he was supposed to have done, or if his detention was a result of poor tour guide guidance,” the second participant told me. “But all of the tour guides were young people who get very drunk. It was sort of like there were few or no adults around.”
Consider these two incidents, the first of which has not been previously reported. The tourists celebrated New Year’s Eve by carousing in Kim Il Sung Square, a major public space in Pyongyang. The participants described it as a very pleasant evening, and a rare occasion to interact with North Koreans. “It was quite playful,” said a third participant said, who also asked to speak anonymously. The evening was “really special,” Ben Johnson, an Australian who was on the tour, told me.
But then something “fucking crazy” happened, the American told me. Danny Gratton, a Brit in his mid-forties, “takes a balloon on a string from some kid, waves the balloon up and down, and, like the Pied Piper, a bunch of North Koreans start following him,” says the American, who says he was the only foreigner who joined along. The two men, engaging with the North Koreans, happy and laughing, strolled around the area for roughly half an hour. The American than decided to turn back and rejoin the group. But Gratton kept walking, and found himself on a dark street, alone.
In any other part of the world, this would not be noteworthy. But North Korea is the world’s most closed country, and guides tightly monitor Western tourists. This kind of vanishing act is extremely rare. Over the last decade, I’ve spoken with dozens of Western tourists who have visited North Korea, and I have never heard of anything like this happening.
“The North Korean guides were panicked. They were so scared, asking us, ‘Have you seen him, have you seen him?’ and we, including the Western guides, were too drunk to realize the seriousness of the situation,” the first participant told me. “Danny got separated from the group,” Ben Johnson, who now works with Young Pioneer as a guide, confirmed. “There was really thick fog that night.”
The American remembers the North Korean guides concerned and angry. They asked him, “Where’s Danny? Is he drunk? What do you mean he’s gone?” The tourists waited in the square for hours, until their guides eventually returned them to the hotel. Gratton took several taxis and made it back sometime early in the morning, according to the American, who says he saw him walk back into the hotel.
What makes this event especially notable is that the British tourist disappearance roughly coincides with the time Warmbier allegedly tried to steal the propaganda poster from the hotel, raising questions about whether those two events are related. North Korea is an incredibly opaque place, and at this stage it’s impossible to draw conclusions. And yet, the rough overlap of Gratton’s disappearance and Warmbier’s alleged theft is bizarre. “The one thing that definitely surprised me about the trip was that how on New Year’s Eve, [the North Koreans] pretty much let us roam free and disperse, especially after watching us pretty closely up until that point,” the American said. “That’s how Danny and I ended up being able to walk off by ourselves.”
I spoke with a former Obama administration official, who asked to speak anonymously, about the Gratton incident. “In every other city on the planet, I would interpret it differently,” he told me. “But in Pyongyang, it is just so hard to figure out sometimes what is real and isn’t – because it can all be so uncertain.”
Warmbier and Gratton roomed together during the tour. “I got to know Otto really, really well,” Gratton told the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin, in what appears to be his only interview about the trip. “He was such a mature lad for his age.” Rogin’s story doesn’t include any mention of Gratton’s New Year’s odyssey, and Gratton didn’t respond to multiple Facebook requests for comment.
Another incident raises questions about the judgment of one Young Pioneer Tours guide. On the train ride back into China from Pyongyang, a Canadian friend of one of the Western tour guides hid the passport of one of the Young Pioneer tourists, a man from Hong Kong. North Korean soldiers took the man into a different area of the train, and began interrogating him. “I actively sought help from YPT guide and went to guide’s cabin. YPT guide proceeded to tease and embarrass me,” the tourist’s wife wrote on a TripAdvisor review, which she published on Jan. 5, 2016, several days after leaving North Korea.
Two people confirmed the story to me; one was the second participant, who heard it from the Hong Kong woman who found herself mocked by her tour guide as North Korean guards interrogated her husband. “It was very traumatic for them,” this person told me. And a person familiar with the matter, who wasn’t on the train but heard the story from one of the perpetrators, confirmed what she wrote in the Trip Advisor posting, and called it “a joke that went a bit wrong.” The Hong Kong woman didn’t respond to repeated messages on Facebook; two of the Young Pioneer Tour guides who went on the trip, and the founder Gareth Johnson, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comments. Johnson’s Chinese cellphone appears to be disconnected, and no one answered repeated calls to the company’s office, which is in the central Chinese city of Xian.
While her colleague was taking some of the tourists out of the country on the train, the guide Charlotte Guttridge, who was responsible for Warmbier, took a plane back to Beijing. “When it became clear that [Warmbier] wasn’t coming, I had to board the flight before it departed,” Guttridge told Reuters in January 2016. “I was the last to board the flight.”
And yet, two of the tour participants dispute this. It was “this kind of Home Alone moment, when people realized Otto wasn’t on the plane,” the second participant said. “The plane is pulling off, and everyone is saying, ‘Holy shit, where is Otto?’ the second participant added. “If you had to point your finger at something [the tour company did wrong] besides the drinking – if I were running a tour I would be the last one on the plane, to make sure everyone gets on the flight!” The first participant said. “She [Guttridge] was on the plane, before everyone was on the plane, and she didn’t notice before someone said, ‘Hey, where’s Otto?’” According to what Gratton told The Washington Post, in the airport two North Korean security officials took Warmbier to a private room. Gratton claims he was the only person to see Warmbier detained. Gratton then boarded the flight to Beijing.
One participant shared with me the private Facebook group on which the tourists discussed what happened to Warmbier after the trip. “There was a small issue with Otto,” Guttridge, the guide responsible for Warmbier, wrote on Jan. 3, the day after the tour ended. “Gareth stayed in the country to help fix, it’s currently being dealt with.” Several days after his arrest, one member of the Facebook group wrote, “Hey, I have heard that Otto was supposed to get out today – January 8. Any news?” Guttridge responded, “We expect it to be resolved soon, but at the moment please be patient until we send news.”
Of the dozens of people I reached out to who visited North Korea on the trip with Warmbier, several declined to comment because Warmbier’s family had asked participants to not speak with the press. No one answered the phone at the Warmbier house when I called on Thursday.
Several of the participants had a positive experience on the trip. Although Gareth Johnson “was prone to drinking,” that was “only at the hotel and after ‘working’ hours, so to speak. He still managed to wrangle it together the next day and take us on the tours,” the third participant said. This participant added that although “it was like being on a school trip,” the tour “felt safe.” The Western guides “were really nice, passionate people who were great to be around,” the Australian tourist Ben Johnson said. “I always felt safe in North Korea.” A sixth participant spoke briefly, and had only positive things to say about Young Pioneer Tours; since the North Korea experience, this participant said he has done two other tours with the company: one to Cuba, and one to Turkmenistan.
Although Warmbier’s father Fred hasn’t spoken publicly about the tour company, he has criticized Barack Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” – inaction coupled with regional diplomacy – and credited President Trump with freeing his son. The two men spoke on the phone, an experience Warmbier, in a June 15 news conference, called “gracious.” June 20, Trump implicitly blamed Obama for the incident, saying, “it’s a disgrace what happened to Otto. It’s a total disgrace.”
And yet, it’s difficult to blame the Obama administration until more gets revealed about what occurred. “Were people aware? Yes. Was this something the White House was working on? Yes,” said the former Obama administration official. “Was there a lot of information flowing when we had those discussions? No, because we didn’t have all that much information.”
The State Department’s special representative for North Korea, Joseph Y. Yun, reportedly first learned about Warmbier’s medical condition on June 6. “In hindsight, and without knowing all the details of his medical condition, maybe the administration lacked a sense of urgency, but it was not for lack of effort,” the former administration official said. Pyongyang released Warmbier a week later, the same day that Dennis Rodman – the only person alive known to have relatively warm relations with Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un – arrived in Pyongyang. It’s unknown whether those two events are related; a National Security Council spokesperson denied that they are, while Rodman said he and his representatives asked Kim three times to release Warmbier. Perhaps someone in Pyongyang decided it was time to improve relations with the United States, after months of growing tensions following successive missile tests. (Reached by email, Yun declined to comment.)
After Warmbier’s June 19 death, relations between Washington and Pyongyang further deteriorated. “The United States cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers,” Senator John McCain said in a statement. Perhaps someone in Pyongyang had realized how much worse it would have been if Warmbier had died in North Korean custody. What caused his coma, North Korea insisted this week, is a “mystery.”
Despite Warmbier’s death, I believe North Korea remains a safe place for adventurous, but cautious American travelers. It’s unclear, however, if Warmbier’s tragic death was an aberration or the start of a new, more dangerous normal. Moreover, Young Pioneer Tours promotes a riskier vibe: “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
These are “binge drinking tours,” says Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University. “That’s part of the lure of going to a place like North Korea: You can just go nuts. You can’t do drugs, or go to a brothel, so you get smashed.” While drinking is socially respectable in North Korea, that isn’t the right way to sell the country, the former CNN journalist Mike Chinoy told me. “People need to go with their eyes open, and play by North Korean rules,” said Chinoy, who has visited the country 17 times and is the author of The Last P.O.W., a book about Merrill Newman, one of the other Americans recently imprisoned in North Korea.
Others say it’s not fair to hold YPT responsible. “There has been an arrest now with almost every single Western tour agency,” said Chad O’Carrroll, who runs the site NK News. “It’s bad luck for Gareth now that people are connecting the dots with partying and drinking to the death, but if Merrill Newman or Matthew Miller [two other American tourists recently detained in North Korea] had died, there would also be outrage – but not that connection.” He added, North Korea is “to blame for this death, ultimately.”
“I don’t know everything, and probably never will,” one of the participants on the Facebook group wrote after the news of Warmbier’s sentencing in March 2016, “but I know he’s a good guy with shitty luck.” Warmbier, in other words, was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“When I first met [Warmbier], I remember sitting next to him and talking, and the way he described Beijing made me think he was pretty overwhelmed,” the first participant told me sadly. “And my first thought was, ‘he’s in way over his head.’”