Please, No More Tourism to Cultlike, Repressive Dictatorships Like North Korea

Posted on June 26, 2017


We originally published this article on 2 January 2015.  At that moment, there were no Americans in North Korean custody, thanks to an embarrassing and expensive mission by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to retrieve the last two American prisoners in late 2014.  Thus, we implored the American traveling public to adopt a New Year’s Resolution to avoid travel to North Korea.

Almost exactly one year later, US college student Otto Warmbier took a tour to North Korea, and ended up getting arrested and imprisoned over accusations that he stole a propaganda poster in his hotel.  Eighteen moths after that, North Korea finally released him – with severe brain damage, which killed him within days of his return to US soil.

Warmbier was still just a kid.  He didn’t understand just how seriously the North Korean regime takes anything… anything… associated with the Kim family.  To any normal Western citizen, a poster is pretty much just a poster.  We do not grasp the implications of offending a repressive Cult of Personality such as the one that rules North Korea.  We do not understand the real risks.  Mr. Warmbier found himself in a living nightmare only when it was too late to do anything about it, and that was the last he ever knew of this Earth.

So please, please – do not go to North Korea.  For a good look at just how easily you could end up in a living nightmare, please check out Craig S. Smith’s article describing his travel to North Korea –  and the chilling realization, after the fact, how close he might have come to serious trouble there.  Take heed, and stay away.  It is not worth the risk.


From January 2015:

Now that “The Interview” has been released, woe unto any American snared by North Korea.

North Korea has a well-known history of imprisoning Americans (see the summary of recent cases at the end of this article), sentencing them to hard labor, and then – after weeks, months or years – granting the American’s release only after much humiliation, scripted public apologies, and groveling by high-ranking US diplomats. There is no question that North Korea attempts to use imprisoned Americans as bargaining chips.   Even if the US makes no policy concessions, there is the rather distasteful optic and the considerable expense of sending high-ranking or prominent Americans to a petty and dangerous rogue regime, hat in hand, to beg for the release of our wayward citizens.

Personally, I think most of these Americans were outright fools and even sort of thoughtlessly selfish, for attempting to proselytize, to witness for North Korea’s oppressed, to do humanitarian work, or to actually try to get inside the prison camps. In the end, the only North Korean who benefits from their efforts is Kim.  News flash for everyone: the US Constitution does not apply outside our borders. You do not have freedom of speech or anything else when you step inside the borders of an insular, brutal, repressive dictatorship like North Korea. Your status as a US citizen is worth exactly nothing to you, but it’s worth a lot to Kim. There is a lot of tension between the US and North Korea, and as soon as you land in Pyongyang, you’re basically saying, “Hello, I’d like to be a pawn for you to use against my home country, and end up costing them a lot of money and embarrassment.”  Don’t do that!

Could things get any worse?  Um, yes.  Now that the movie The Interview has been released, along with the hacking of Sony (origins unclear), threats of 9/11-style attacks on any theaters that show the movie (origins unclear), and unhappy official pronouncements by the North Korean government, we really, really, REALLY need to stay the hell out of that country. They have warned that releasing the movie would be “an act of war,” and now we have a South Korean nut who wants to airdrop copies of the movie over North Korea in an attempt to break down the personality cult surrounding the Kim dynasty.  As the Washington Post reminds us, any criticism or mockery of the Kims, or even crumpling a paper with a Kim portrait on it, is a serious offense in North Korea, and Kim Jong Un – just 31 years old and still a newcomer to power – may be prone to “overcompensating” for such perceived offenses as The Interview presents.

There is absolutely zero legitimate reason for any private American to want to go to North Korea. All that ever did was put Americans in danger, give the Kims potential bargaining chips, and cost the US government a lot of taxpayer money and embarrassment to go get some fool’s sorry butt and bring it home. Notice that North Korea doesn’t really need you to do anything wrong, either; they were happy to detain 85-year-old tourist Merrill Newman, apparently just for having served on the “wrong side” more than half a century ago in the Korean War (well, technically we are still at war with them, so there you go, another reason not to visit).  With The Interview circulating, doing nothing wrong is probably more than enough reason for incarceration of any Americans fool enough to go there now.

As it happens, at this very moment, there are no Americans imprisoned in North Korea. Thankfully, the last two detainees were brought home at taxpayer expense in November 2014 (in case you were wondering, it costs $6330 per hour to operate the C-40B that the US Government sent to pick them up; conservatively assuming roughly 30 hours of operational time for the round trip, that would be nearly $900,000).

So here’s a good New Year’s Resolution for us all: no more wacky travel plans to North Korea!!


Two journalists in pursuit of a story on refugees illegally crossed into North Korea in March 2009, and spent 5 months in detention.  Former President Bill Clinton had to go make nice with the then-reigning Kim Jong Il, raising Kim’s prestige while abasing that of the US, to get the journalists released.

Shortly afterward, Robert Park crossed into North Korea to “bring God’s love” to this officially atheist country (this is a place where people get executed for having Bibles, so giving them out is not doing anyone any favors).  It was no surprise that he ended up imprisoned for 43 days, a time during which he says he was tortured and sexually abused.   When he was released… after making a round of heart-rending apologies and glowing remarks about the joys of North Korea… the US claimed there had been no “deals” with the DPRK government.  Park suffers from continued physical and psychological problems.

Then, in 2010, there was Aijalon Mahli Gomes, who also entered the country illegally and was arrested and sentenced to 8 years hard labor. His motive was never made public, but he apparently had humanitarian purposes in mind.  He spent 7 months in detention there and like the journalists, it took the groveling of a former US President… Carter this time… to get him out.

Kenneth Bae had been escorting tour groups into North Korea for several years when he was accused of religious activities and arrested in November 2012. His family describes him as a “devout Christian” who wanted to help the North Korean people by “contributing to their economy in the form of tourism,” CNN reports. He ultimately spent two years imprisoned in North Korea.

In November of 2013, Merrill Newman – an 85-year-old US veteran of the Korean War who went on an organized 10-day group tour of North Korea – was arrested just as he was on the plane and ready to depart at the end of the tour.  He was accused of “hostile acts” and war crimes, held for six weeks, and had to “apologize.”  He was finally released thanks to cooperation between our Embassy in Beijing and the Swedish Embassy in North Korea.

In May of 2014, Jeffrey Fowle was arrested and then spent six months imprisoned in North Korea for leaving a Bible behind while on an organized tour. He was released after some efforts by the Swedish Embassy on behalf of the US (thanks again, Sweden). While North Korea did not demand a high-level US visit in this case – a move seen as a conciliatory gesture – they did require that the US send a plane to transport Mr. Fowle out of the country in October 2014.

In April of 2014, Matthew Miller tried very, very hard to get himself arrested, and he succeeded. Miller was sentenced to six years of hard labor. He was released along with Mr. Bae in November 2014, after the US Director for National Intelligence, James Clapper, flew to North Korea on a secret diplomatic mission to secure their release.