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The State Department warns U.S. citizens to stay away from North Korea. Why hundreds go anyway every year

North Korea, obviously, isn’t a tourist destination for American families.

The reclusive totalitarian state has an abysmal human rights record, impoverished residents and an illicit nuclear weapons program — and it has detained numerous visitors over the years.

Yet hundreds of American tourists still go there legally each year, despite the risks and strong warnings by the U.S. State Department not to do so.

These tourists are people such as Shalin Mody, an investor from Pittsburgh — young adventure-seekers who’ve already traveled the world and are curious to explore one of the world’s least-understood societies, according to interviews with people who’ve taken or organized the trips.

“It’s such a strange country. That’s the first thing that strikes you,” said Mody, who went in 2012 and still recalls the locals’ unique clothes and other quirks, such as a fancy hotel with two adjacent male bathrooms. “It was the isolation and the sheer otherworldliness that struck me.”

Many who visit North Korea, typically in government-approved tour groups that originate in Beijing, experience a highly structured trip designed to show the nation and its capital city, Pyongyang, at their best.

They are bused to schools where students perform choreographed dances or musical performances, for example, and they’re shown modern buildings, national museums and monuments to the ruling family that took firm control after the Korean War.

Such visits could soon be more difficult, however, in response to the detention and recent death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student who spent 17 months in custody there for apparently offending the government.

North Korea released Warmbier, who had suffered severe brain damage while in custody and was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” last week. He died Monday in a Cincinnati hospital, and his family has blamed his death on brutal treatment while in custody. Doctors are still trying to determine what caused his condition.

Meanwhile, political leaders in the United States have responded with strong statements of concern.

A bipartisan bill pending in Congress would add new rules on American travel to North Korea, banning trips there for tourism. The Trump administration is also considering its own new restrictions. Meanwhile, some of the tourism agencies that have in the past transported and supervised Americans there are reconsidering the practice.

"The barbaric treatment of Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime amounts to the murder of a U.S. citizen,” said U.S. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who has filed legislation known as the North Korea Travel Control Act to limit Americans’ travel there — and ban North Korea tourism outright.

Accounts from people who’ve visited the country vary, but many are positive. They report witnessing a country unlike any they’ve seen — a place with strange urban architecture, extreme poverty in rural areas and strict societal rules throughout.

During the tours, some have reported incidents of raucous, late-night partying in hotels — actions that could get tourists in trouble. Those who deviate from the controlled tours can face punishment, as many tour companies warn.

A grainy security video during the time Warmbier visited with a company called Young Pioneer Tours, for example, purported to show him taking a government banner from his hotel — an offense that apparently led to his short trial and a 15-year prison-and-hard-labor sentence.

Andray Abrahamian, who has organized trips for professionals to discuss economics but also tours for younger people participating in a Pyongyang marathon, said Warmbier’s case was tragic and needless — an extreme overreaction to a student who apparently made a youthful mistake.

But he said not everyone who visits as a tourist is respectful of local expectations, however rigid or unfamiliar they may be.

“Sometimes on tours, there is the risk that people aren’t taking the visit seriously,” he said. “Part of that is the impression among some people that North Korea is not only a dangerous place, but also a ridiculous place.”

It was with Young Pioneer Tours that Mody visited in 2012 — a trip he took after traveling extensively in Asia, South America and Africa. He said he witnessed heavy drinking by tour organizers in the bar at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, a common location for Western tourists.

“It is a youth-oriented group, and people do like to party. I don’t think that things were done in such a manner that put us at any undue risk,” he said.

Young Pioneer Tours said Tuesday that it would no longer take Americans to North Korea in light of what happened to Warmbier. Another North Korea travel group, Uri Tours, said it too was reconsidering whether to accept American customers.

The flurry of tragic news about Warmbier — and the government’s recent warnings — also convinced at least one American to reconsider a North Korean tour.

Justin Lau, a tech strategist working in the Bay Area, had planned to enter North Korea from Beijing on Tuesday with a well-established tour company. Then he learned about Warmbier.

He said the agency, Koryo Tours, did an excellent job preparing him for the journey. Its English-speaking guides, for example, offered a “sober orientation” about expectations for tourists, cautioning him, for example, against taking pornography or religious materials. They also told him not to take pictures while there without asking guides for permission.

Still, he worried it wouldn’t be safe, given recent events.

“I was frankly really curious about going to North Korea. I almost likened it to visiting East Berlin back in the 1960s,” he said. “Obviously, I knew there was going to be a risk, but I believed it was a risk worth taking. Tuesday that threshold was crossed, and I was like, ‘No.’”

Robert Kelly, an American college professor in South Korea who visited on a tour with Koryo in 2012, said he witnessed plenty of tourists partying on his journey. But he said the group warned its customers to be careful about offending the locals.

“Stealing stuff, leaving Bibles, all that sort of stuff Koryo was very upfront about not doing. Warmbier should have been told all that,” Kelly said in an email while traveling back in the United States. “But the punishment was ridiculous. They basically murdered that poor boy.”

In addition to the travel ban, the legislation filed by Schiff and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) would direct the Treasury Department to implement new licensing rules.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that he and others were “evaluating” whether to impose a “travel visa restriction” on visits to North Korea, though it’s unclear in what form that might be imposed.

“We have not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it,” he said.

Some who have visited say they would be more nervous about visiting now. But Abrahamian said such trips exposed a society that isn’t imaginable without seeing it, even with the risks.

“I can see why that sentiment exists,” he said of American officials’ efforts to restrict the travel. “On the other hand, overall, encouraging tourism still has some positive impact.”

Stiles is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

10:15 a.m.: This article was updated to clarify the number of American tourists visiting North Korea and other points.

This article was originally published at 7:05 a.m.

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