On March 16, North Korea’s highest court sentenced a 21-year-old American tourist, University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier of Wyoming, Ohio, to 15 years at hard labor. His crime? Stealing a propaganda banner from his hotel in Pyongyang. The U.S. State Department called the sentence “unduly harsh”; the White House called it politically motivated. Warmbier had come to the Hermit Kingdom for a five-day New Year’s Day group tour, and when he was at the Pyongyang airport about to leave the country, he was taken into custody. Charged with subversion, he was found guilty at a trial that lasted less than an hour. The prosecution demanded a life sentence, but Warmbier’s lawyer managed to bring the punishment down to 15 years. Reporting on the conviction, the North Korean news agency called Warmbier’s offense “serious” and described it as “a bid to impair the unity” of the North Korean people. In a public statement, Warmbier insisted he had been “used and manipulated…lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country.”
How did Warmbier find his way into North Korea in the first place? He signed up for a tour package with a firm called Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), which arranges vacations for Westerners who want to visit Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship. What kind of outfit is YPT? We checked out its website. Featuring a cutesy-wootsie logo and written in a colloquial English plainly addressed to cool young backpacker types, it explains that the firm “started from humble beginnings as a group of expats living in China brought together by our love of being on the road.” The company’s founders “have tweaked and experimented with our tours to best fulfil what you guys out there are looking for, making a lot of new friends and having some interesting and bizarre experiences along the way.”
Well, Warmbier has certainly had an interesting and bizarre experience, though we’re sure this isn’t exactly what the stooges at YPT are talking about.
The YPT folks go on to brag about themselves. They have a “great reputation for awfully fun guides who bring out the travel bug in people while ensuring that everything runs smoothly.” They nurse a noble belief in “going out of your way to help others on the road, share experiences and make friends wherever you can,” and say that “this attitude…has opened doors to us that can’t be opened in other ways.”
They also go out of their way to reassure us that North Korea isn’t anywhere near as bad as it’s cracked up to be. “How safe is it? Extremely safe! Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit. Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of. We have never felt suspicious or threatened at any time.” The last time we looked, this text hadn’t been removed from the YPT website, despite what happened to Warmbier.
To be sure, the YPT site warns against “having a debate with the guides.” Not because you might end up spending the rest of your life in prison at hard labor, but because “their beliefs are important to them” and should be respected. “Everyone has read or seen lots on North Korea,” the YPT sages tell us; “this is your opportunity to listen to the other side. If you’re quiet and listen you’ll be surprised just how much you can learn.”
Yes, shut up and listen to the propaganda. More about these appalling idiots tomorrow.