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Boozy tours court trouble in the hermit kingdom

From The Australian

Beer-soaked “booze cruises” down North Korea’s Taedong River. Scuba-diving trips off the country’s eastern coast. Saint Patrick’s Day pub crawls in Pyongyang featuring drinking games with cheery locals.

Since 2008, the Young Pioneer Tours agency has built up a business attracting young travellers with a competitively priced catalogue of exotic-sounding, hard-partying adventures in one of the world’s most isolated countries.

But the death on Monday of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested during a Young Pioneer tour to North Korea in late 2015 and fell into a coma while in detention, has renewed questions about whether the company was adequately prepared for its trips into the hard-line communist state.

Although many details of Warmbier’s fateful trip are unknown, interviews with past Young Pioneer customers or those who have crossed paths with the tour operator describe a company with lapses in organisation, a gung-ho drinking culture and a cavalier attitude that has long troubled industry peers and North Korea watchers.

Founded in 2008 by Briton Gareth Johnson in the central Chinese city of Xi’an, Young Pioneer has a fun and casual style that is seen as its calling card, a counterpoint to North Korea’s reputation as a draconian hermit kingdom. “Budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,” its website touts, while describing North Korea as one of the safest places on Earth.

However, the agency also known as YPT has been associated with a string of cautionary tales, including of the tourist who performed a handstand outside the most politically sensitive mausoleum in Pyongyang where two generations of the Kim family are buried, resulting in a North Korean guide losing her job.


In a July 2016 interview on the travel podcast Counting Countries, Mr Johnson boasted of gaining notoriety after once stepping off a moving North Korean train while drunk on soju. That stunt resulted in his breaking his ankle, leading to a stay at a Pyongyang hospital and visits from the British embassy and UN doctors, who told Mr Johnson he risked losing his foot within a week. “I didn’t make (the jump), but I became a legend,” he says.

In the podcast, Mr Johnson describes himself as a 36-year-old university dropout from London who travelled through eastern ­Europe and lived in the Cayman Islands before arriving in North Korea for the first time a decade ago. Immediately, he was hooked.

“The first time you go to North Korea, it’s just an amazing experience, like nothing you’ve ever seen,” Mr Johnson says. “After that first trip, I knew I wanted to take people to North Korea.”

In an interview, Adam Pitt, 33, a British expatriate who formerly lived in Beijing and went on a 2013 trip, describes a party atmosphere led by Mr Johnson, who was often heavily inebriated and “almost unable to stand and barely understandable when he did speak” at a tense border crossing where he needed to hand wads of cash to ­officials as bribes.

Although it is expected tourists will to relax and enjoy a few drinks while travelling, tour operators and tourists say YPT has long stood out for its party-hearty tour groups. In respective interviews with Fairfax Media and The Independent newspaper, New Zealander Nick Calder and Irish tourist Darragh O Tuathail recalled the New Year’s Party tour group Warmbier travelled with in Pyongyang in late December 2015 carousing until early morning. Mr O Tuathail declines to discuss his recollections of the trip when contacted, saying he wanted to let Warmbier’s family grieve in peace.

On the return leg from that YPT trip, a YPT guide pulled a prank on a customer taking the train back to Beijing by helping hide her husband’s passport from border agents. That resulted in a scramble to find the passport and a confrontation with irked North Korean soldiers who briefly held the husband.

In an emotional news conference last week after Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea, his father, Fred Warmbier, lashed out at tour agencies that “advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming, ‘No American ever gets detained on our tours’ and ‘This is a safe place to go’.”

After Warmbier’s death in an Ohio hospital, YPT issued a statement saying it would no longer accept US customers because “the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high”.

Mr Pitt, who is Mormon and does not drink, says the company’s statement appears to shift blame on to tourists rather than examining its own laissez-faire culture. “It’s not about who goes, it’s about how their groups behave that causes problems,” he says.

In response to requests for comment, Mr Johnson sent two brief emails discussing only his experiences outside of North Korea.

YPT co-owner Rowan Beard says most reviewers attest to the company’s professionalism and preparation.

“Frankly, everyone has different perceptions on things like drinking and what concerns it raises,” Mr Beard wrote in an email. “With the recent tragedy, it’s human nature for some people to overemphasise certain aspects of their experience.”

Mr Beard says the mausoleum incident did not involve alcohol and YPT warned all customers about the political sensitivities of the site. He says YPT has taken more than 8000 tourists to North Korea with only one incident, and boasts a five-star rating and certificate of excellence on the Trip­Advisor review website.

Mr Beard says Mr Johnson was in North Korea on business when Warmbier was detained but was not part of his tour.

John Delury, a North Korea expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, says tour groups barely existed 10 years ago, and any sliver of “responsible engagement” between the US and North Korea is valuable. But he worries about tours that do not educate customers on the nuances and political realities of what they are seeing.

“Hipster adventure tourism, where it’s like going to a zoo and staring at North Koreans, is problematic,” says Mr Delury, who is familiar with several of the companies running tours into North Korea. “It seems like the framing of Warmbier’s trip was ‘go party and have a good time in Pyongyang’. That is obviously not how responsible tour companies would frame what they’re about.”

YPT has in recent years expanded its North Korea tours and boasts of other so-called “dark tourism” offerings, ranging from trips to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site in Ukraine to jaunts through Iraq’s largely autonomous Kurdish region.

In another instance, Mr Johnson describes on the June 2016 podcast, he led a YPT tour group into the eastern European breakaway state of Trans-Dniester, where a confrontation with authorities escalated into a policeman pulling out a gun. Mr Johnson talked his way out of the situation because “luckily I had my vodka overcoat on at that point, so I wasn’t that scared”, he says, referring to his drunken state.

“I really shouldn’t have as many stories about being arrested or robbed, but I’ve got quite a lot,” he says in the interview.

Christopher Barbara, a legal consultant who splits his time between Montreal and Shanghai, says he joined a YPT trip to North Korea in 2009 headed by Mr Johnson. “It was so laid back that it was hard to take seriously,” Mr Barbara says. “The way Young ­Pioneers managed the trip made it feel like the priority was having fun, not staying safe.”

One morning after they arrived, Mr Barbara told the group’s North Korean minders who were looking for Mr Johnson that he was ill, when he was in fact hung-over and asleep after a long night.

“I was worried that Gareth’s behaviour was going to get us in trouble,” Mr Barbara says

Mr Johnson has since stepped back from leading YPT tours to found another business called GN Tours — which used to be short for Gross Negligence Tours, ­according to cached Facebook and Google pages. Mr Johnson says GN Tours is not associated with YPT.

GN Tours advertises itself as the leading planner of bachelor parties in Southeast Asia featuring “beaches, babes, bullets and booze (all cheap)


Left: Gareth Johnson, who founded the Young Pioneer Tours agency in 2008, on a visit to the Pyongyang Film Studio in North Korea. Right: Otto Warmbier at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang.

Interviews with past Young Pioneer customers describe a company with lapses in organisation. Picture: AP

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