TOKYO – An American university student's arrest in North Korea has rekindled questions about whether a small but steady trickle of U.S. tourists who go to the country are unwittingly offering themselves up as valuable pawns in a political game with Pyongyang that can have serious repercussions for officials back in Washington who have to bail them out when things go wrong.
U.S. tourism to North Korea is legal and virtually all Americans who make the journey return home without incident.
But the detention of Otto Warmbier (WORM-bir), a 21-year-old University of Virginia economics major who had had chosen to spend his New Year's vacation in North Korea, comes at a particularly difficult — or opportune, depending on how you choose to interpret it — time.
Just days after he was arrested, the North conducted what it said was its first H-bomb test. As Warmbier sits in detention, the United Nations Security Council is mulling a new round of what are expected to be heavy sanctions in response to that test.
According to Warmbier's tour agent, Young Pioneer Tours, he was almost on his plane home when officials pulled him aside, took him into a special room at the Pyongyang airport and placed him under arrest for allegedly committing an as-yet-undisclosed hostile act against the state.
He is still under lock-and-key, possibly in the relative comfort of the Yanggakdo, a tourist hotel where his group had stayed that has previously been used to keep detainees until they are deported or more formal legal measures are taken. The North says he is under investigation and acted with the "tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation."
That is an ominous detail for the North to offer.
Initial announcements by Pyongyang rarely say much about the actual crime and linking it to the U.S. government in their first statement to the world through the state-run media is highly uncommon. Though not a tourist, one more American, missionary Kim Dong Chul, believed to be a naturalized citizen of Korean descent, is reportedly in North Korean custody along with a Canadian-Korean missionary who is serving a life sentence.
"We can't comment on Mr. Warmbier's case at this time as we don't feel it would be in his interests, but every arrest that has occurred has, to our knowledge, been with context," Troy Collings, one of the directors of Young Pioneer Tours, said in an email Wednesday.
Without more information on the charges, it's impossible to gauge Pyongyang's motives for throwing the book at Warmbier or speculate about how difficult his release might be.
Despite the headlines and attention they garner, especially compared with problems involving Chinese visitors, who are far more numerous but rarely if ever jailed, actual arrests of U.S. tourists in North Korea are extremely rare. And while the North might be lowering the bar for cases it chooses to pursue, arrests are by no means random — virtually all have come after violations of well-known North Korean regulations on how tourists must conduct themselves.
But the real problems kick in over what happens next. That's when things tend to get political.
North Korea and the United States are still technically at war and have no diplomatic relations. So gaining a hapless American's freedom can and often does require a senior U.S. official or well-known statesman to fly to Pyongyang, hat in hand, to personally bail the detainee out.
That's great for Pyongyang, where it's portrayed as a magnanimous humanitarian act and U.S. capitulation. For Washington, it's an unwanted distraction and forced detour from its efforts to isolate the North by refusing to deal with it in any kind of substantive bilateral negotiation.
Without banning it outright, the U.S. State Department has long warned against travel to North Korea. But, post nuclear test, the U.S. is now reportedly seeking a ban on tourism and restrictions to keep the North's flagship airline, Air Koryo, from flying into and out of airports abroad. Most tourists board their flights to Pyongyang from Beijing.
As yet, none of the major North Korea travel agencies are canceling upcoming trips. One of the year's biggest tourist draws, the Pyongyang marathon, is just months away.
They are, however, concerned about the fallout from Warmbier's arrest.
China-based Young Pioneer stressed in a news release that Warmbier was the first of the 7,000 people it has taken to North Korea over the past eight years to face arrest. Uri Tours, based in New Jersey, told The AP that it has also only had one such case — American Matthew Miller, who ripped up his tourist visa on arrival in what he has said was a deliberate attempt to get arrested.
Beijing-based Koryo Tours, the biggest agent specializing in bringing Westerners to North Korea, was not immediately available for comment.
"We serve about 1,000 travelers per year on average to the DPRK," Uri Tours CEO Andrea Lee said in an email from Shanghai, using the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. "About 40 percent of our travel clients are American. We have been operating in the country for nearly 15 years, and the only one incident we've had was the case of Matthew Miller."
In the past, North Korea has held out until senior U.S. officials or statesmen came to personally bail out detainees, all the way up to former President Bill Clinton, whose visit in 2009 secured the freedom of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling. Both had crossed the North's border from China illegally.
It took a visit in November 2014 by U.S. spy chief James Clapper to bring home Miller and Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been incarcerated since November 2012.
Jeffrey Fowle, another U.S. tourist detained for six months at about the same time as Miller, was released just before that and sent home on a U.S. government plane. Fowle left a Bible in a local club hoping a North Korean would find it, which is considered a criminal offense in North Korea.
Still, Lee said Americans are not treated differently from other tourists.
"Critics claim that tourism is an avenue for the DPRK government to arrest Americans as political hostages. However, this has not been our experience," she said. "We've taken many American tourists and with the exception of Matthew Miller, they've all returned safely with positive feedback."
Talmadge has been the AP's Pyongyang bureau chief since 2013.