For nearly a decade, Young Pioneer Tours offered travelers from the United States and other countries the chance to see another side of North Korea. Videos on the Young Pioneer’s YouTube channel feature activities ranging from karaoke bars to arm-wrestling matches.
Dr. Calvin Sun, founder of travel guide company Monsoon Diaries, went to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours in 2011. Four years later, Young Pioneer Tours would lead U.S. college student Otto Warmbier on a 2015 trip to the same Pyongyang hotel. It was at this hotel, North Korean officials said, that Warmbier attempted to steal a propaganda poster, for which he was convicted and sentenced to 15 years hard labor.
Sun recalled finding Young Pioneer with a simple Google search while he was traveling in Asia. “They were just the cheapest option,” Sun said.
With a small group of travelers, Sun flew by plane to Pyongyang where they stayed for four nights at the Yanggakdo Hotel, the primary hotel for international tourists.
The hotel offers amenities ranging from bowling and billiards to gambling and bars. After noticing that the hotel’s elevator did not list a fifth floor, Sun and his travel companions found the “hidden” floor via the stairwell and discovered a number of hand-painted propaganda wall hangings.
“We were very nervous in terms of, 'Are we supposed to be here, or are we not supposed to be here?'” he recalled.
Sun said that he was unfamiliar with the hotel hallway that appeared in the surveillance tape released by North Korean officials allegedly showing Warmbier’s removing a poster from the wall.
Warmbier died Monday in Cincinnati, Ohio, just days after arriving from North Korea in what U.S. doctors described as a state of unresponsive wakefulness.
As a result, China-based Young Pioneer Tours said it will no longer take Americans to North Korea but will continue the tours for others.
“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier's life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists,” the company said on its website. “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.”
Said Dr. Sun: “Hearing about what happened is devastating to us as travelers.”