His vacation to North Korea didn’t go as planned.
When we think of places to travel as college students, we think of the Caribbean for fun, or Europe for history and languages. Destinations that don’t necessarily cross our mind: militaristic, totalitarian, repressive countries like North Korea.
Yet for Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old University of Virginia student, a quick trip to North Korea ended up turning into a disastrously extended stay.
Now he could face 15 years or more of hard labor.
Otto embarked on a short trip to North Korea through Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel agency that helps take Westerners into North Korea on organized tours.
Though not recommended by the American government, traveling to North Korea is not illegal, although foreigners must be accompanied by tour guides. While it may seem like an easy way to explore the world’s most secretive country, Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, reminds us:
“Foreigners who travel to [North Korea] on tightly controlled tours are also subjected to strict control, coercion, surveillance, and ultimately punishment if the regime thinks they have ‘fallen out of line.”
After visiting the country’s capital Pyongyang for the New Year, Otto and some 100 other westerners boarded a plane, prepared to leave the country and return to China.
That’s when North Korean officials prevented Otto’s departure and arrested him on the grounds of “bringing down the foundation of [North Korea’s] single-minded unity.” His charge? Stealing a piece of propaganda from the workers-only area of the hotel they were staying at.