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The Otto Warmbier incident was an event so hideous and shocking that it made us all question our faith in the abilities of the US government and the balance of power in the world (and it even caused Dillon to finally back out on Kim Jong-un). Many unanswered questions about the affair still linger.
The main things I’m wondering are as follows: Why would you even go to North Korea? How drunk do you have to be to try to steal something in North Korea? Who the heck was in charge of this thing?
The answers are surprising. First of all, turns out it’s pretty easy to get to North Korea if you want to.
All you have to do to get a visa is book a trip with a tour company that operates there. Young Pioneer Tours, the company that Otto booked with, proudly totes their reputation for “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stay away from” right on the front page of their website. Just like many of us would be, poor Otto was probably overtaken by curiosity and looking to have a once-in-a-lifetime trip inside an evil rogue state run by an insane person. And they’re not lying about the budget part — if you can get over there, YPT claims they’ll get you in and out of the DPRK for less than $1200.
But unfortunately for Otto, the trip he went on was run a little bit more like a booze cruise than a finely-tuned expedition behind enemy lines.
“It seems partying was a bigger part of the job description than taking care of us,” said one participant, who asked to speak anonymously. Throughout the day, there would be “a fair degree of sobriety and propriety,” but during the evenings, the Western tour guides would be drinking heavily.
Already sounds like exactly the kind of people you want having your back in a hostile totalitarian nation. Still, this probably wasn’t something Otto was worried about at the time. Keep in mind that while 15 Americans have been detained since 2009 (and most of them by KJU), none of them had died at the hands of the North Koreans until Otto.
Apparently things got more than just a little out of hand on this particular trip, however, which quite possibly played a role in Otto’s eventual detention.
On New Year’s Eve, the tour group allegedly went out drunkenly in Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang and were somehow able to interact directly with North Koreans. That’s when shit hit the fan.
Danny Gratton, a Brit in his mid-forties, “takes a balloon on a string from some kid, waves the balloon up and down, and, like the Pied Piper, a bunch of North Koreans start following him,” says [one source], who says he was the only foreigner who joined along. The two men, engaging with the North Koreans, happy and laughing, strolled around the area for roughly half an hour.
The guy telling this story says he went back to the hotel after a little bit, because, you know, you don’t really want to be leading a whole bunch of North Koreans around Pyongyang after dark when you’re trashed. But Danny kept walking, and eventually disappeared with the small army he had gathered. According to the Politico story, the North Korean minders were really freaked out and had no idea where he was, while the Westerners (including Warmbier) were reportedly too drunk to realize what was going on. The missing Brit turned up on his own the next morning, but Politico says Danny’s actions somewhat concur with the timeframe during which Otto was supposed to have stolen the banner.
Some of the smartest people on Earth can’t tell you what the hell is going on in North Korea, but this seems like more than just a massive coincidence to me. Maybe KJU was reacting more to the drunken revolutionary going 99 Red Balloons in his capital city than some kid stealing a conversation piece for his dorm room and Otto just happened to do the wrong thing at the wrong time? Seems very possible.
“Rather than being for the purpose of honoring Supreme Leader, maybe the kind of trips run by Young Pioneer are subversive missions bringing freedom and Western values to my subjects?” – Kim Jong-un, maybe
Young Pioneer is amazingly still offering trips and taking reservations for 2018. Wondering if you should go? Here’s one more thing from Politico:
These are “binge drinking tours,” says Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean Studies at Tufts University. “That’s part of the lure of going to a place like North Korea: You can just go nuts. You can’t do drugs, or go to a brothel, so you get smashed.
Yeah, maybe stick to Mexico..
Image via Shutterstock