Each year, hundreds of Americans pay to travel to North Korea, governed by one of the harshest regimes on earth.
Visiting the country isn't terribly expensive or difficult to organize, although it will cost Americans from just $500 to about $2,500 for a preplanned tour, depending on the length of the trip. Several groups offer all-inclusive package tours of North Korea, such as Koryo Tours. Young Pioneers Tours, the group that organized Warmbier's tour, said it's no longer accepting Americans traveling on U.S. passports because it now considers the risks "too high."
The tours start from Beijing, which means American travelers must also buy airfare to China. The reason Westerners travel to North Korea despite warnings and concerns over the regime include fascination with seeing first-hand an isolated and secretive communist country.
"It's a world that's sort of fascinated me for a very long time," said Tristan Kneschke, a digital colorist who visited North Korea in 2015 and who documented his trip at the online magazine Across the Margin. "I've always had an interest in dystopian literature. It's the closest I could get to being in a book like '1984.'"
Kneschke, who took a Koryo Tours trip, said he would probably think twice about booking a North Korea trip today given Warmbier's case, but he added the trip changed him by helping him appreciate the freedoms enjoyed in the U.S.
The tour group provides an orientation about how to behave in North Korea, and he said one of his preparations for the trip was cleaning most of his files from his laptop because North Korean officials search travelers' electronics. Anything political or that the regime could misconstrue could get a traveler in trouble, he noted.
"They literally asked me, 'Do you have any movie files?'" he said. "In that context, a tragic story like Otto Warmbier makes a little more sense. This isn't a country that can take a joke."
Warmbier was convicted in 2016 by North Korean officials of trying to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. He was released more than year later in a medically induced coma, and he died in the U.S. a few days after his release. He was 22.
Visiting North Korea "wasn't like a trip to Europe," Kneschke said. North Korean minders accompany tour groups to make sure tourists don't stray from designated areas. Despite the risks, Kneschke said he felt fairly safe because the group's tour guide and the North Korean minders kept a close eye on travelers. "It was difficult to run off," he noted.
The cost of a North Korean trip may be reasonable, but the accommodations and food were disappointing, Kneschke said.
"The food was terrible," he said. "It was one of the worst things there. One, they're very regimented. If our tour group was running 10 minutes late, the food is already out, so now it's at room temperatures. They have a lack of seasoning, no salt and pepper."
As it stands now, Americans can still travel to North Korea, although the Trump administration next available tour leaves on July 22 and will set back adventurous travelers by 1,850 euros, or about $2,070.from making the trip. At Koryo, the