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North Korea Detains U.S. Student For 'Hostile Act'


A 21-year-old student from the University of Virginia is the latest tourist to be detained while traveling in North Korea. The country's state-run media reported that Otto Frederick Warmbier was arrested while perpetrating what they called a hostile act against the country. The adventure travel company Young Pioneer Tours confirmed that their client was detained, and they said they're working to address the case. To answer some questions about tourism in North Korea, we've called on Curtis Melvin. He's a researcher at the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Welcome to the show.

CURTIS MELVIN: It's good to be with you.

SHAPIRO: We have no information about what this student did that led to his arrest, but can you tell us about the kinds of rules that Western tourists to North Korea are asked to follow - what they can and cannot do?

MELVIN: Yes. Tourism in North Korea is unlike tourism in many other countries. You're required to stay in a group. You're required to have two guides, who do actually report on you. And the tour groups are supposed to follow a set itinerary, and so there's very little improvisation that takes place.

SHAPIRO: And are there natural things that people would do as tourists in other places that you could get in trouble, perhaps detained for doing in North Korea?

MELVIN: Yes. In North Korea, the tourism companies usually provide a briefing tour before people enter the country where they lay out rules and expectations. Some of these are don't take pictures of military sites or of soldiers, don't take pictures of people without their permission. And then there's some more obscure North Korea rules, such as if you're taking a photograph of the Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il statue, you're supposed to get the entire statue in the frame. And the North Koreans actually check people's cameras when they're leaving the country and delete photos that they find offensive.

SHAPIRO: But it's one thing to say if you take a certain type of photo it might be deleted from your camera before you leave the country. It's another thing to be detained. What kinds of offenses are punishable by arrest?

MELVIN: Yeah, that's a really good question because most of the offenses they detain tourists for are really actions that would be considered benign or silly in other countries. And so in the past, an American was detained for leaving a Bible hidden in a restaurant in Chongjin. And another American simply tore up his tourism visa when he arrived there and was taken into custody. So the North Koreans - they've prioritized tourism as an industry that they want to support, and the government is spending more money on it. But they are sending very mixed signals with how they treat people and how they expect them to behave.

SHAPIRO: The group Young Pioneer Tours that this student went to North Korea with advertises itself on its website as offering budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from. Has traveling to North Korea gained some kind of cachet among adventure travelers and do the trips actually deliver on a promise of adventure?

MELVIN: Yes. I would say that most of the people who go to North Korea are people who are, quote, unquote, "adventure travelers" and people who are interested in the geopolitics of the region.

SHAPIRO: And is a typical trip there an adventure?

MELVIN: Yes. If you are a typical middle-class American who has, you know, a 9-to-5 job and you've typically taken a vacation to maybe the Caribbean if you've been overseas, there's nothing like North Korea anywhere else in the world. And you will see something that you can't see anywhere (laughter). And it's probably good, too, right, that there's only one place left to see this. But for people who are interested in it, it is an incredible learning experience.

SHAPIRO: That's Curtis Melvin, researcher at the U.S. Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thanks for joining us.

MELVIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.