North Korea Invites More Western Tourists To Visit Days After Sending One Home In A Coma

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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North Korea is inviting Westerners to visit the isolated country to boost domestic tourism just days after sending one home with severe brain damage.

North Korea intends to promote Western visits by reducing the wait time for visas, North Korean Ambassador to Spain Kim Hyok-Chol said at a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) tourism event in Madrid, Spain, China’s People’s Daily reported Friday. The ambassador said that his country is ready to open up to tourism.

The event in Madrid was attended by World Trade Organization Secretary-General Taleb Rifai, who said it would be “irresponsible not to respond positively to Pyongyang’s desire to open up to Western travelers.”

Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained for alleged hostile acts against the state while traveling in North Korea as a tourist, returned home to the U.S. Tuesday after more than a year in captivity. He is in a coma and has, according to the professionals treating him, suffered “severe injuries to all regions of the brain.”

North Korea claimed that Warmbier came down with a case of botulism, a rare form of food poisoning, and slipped into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. Members of the medical team caring for the young student said at a press conference Thursday that there is no evidence to support North Korea’s claims.

The U.S. recently obtained intelligence reports suggesting that North Korean authorities repeatedly beat Warmbier while he was in custody, a senior American official told The New York Times. There were actually serious concerns that the young student was dead. Some American officials suspect that Warmbier’s current condition is the result of his treatment. The doctors, however, did not find any clear signs of physical trauma, such as scars, skin abrasions, or bone fractures, although that does not eliminate the possibility of abuse or mistreatment. It appears, according to medical professionals, that Warmbier experienced cardiopulmonary arrest, restricting blood flow to the brain for a prolonged period.

The doctors refused to speculate on the cause of the comatose student’s condition.

Warmbier traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based tour company operated primarily by Western expatriates. The company claims on its website that North Korea “is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit,” adding that “tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of.”

Warmbier slipped into a coma after a tearful public trial in which he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly attempting to steal a political propaganda poster. North Korea has a long history of kidnapping or arbitrarily detaining foreigners. In some cases, Pyongyang uses its captives as bargaining chips. The North Koreans said that Warmbier was held as a “prisoner of war.”

North Korea has arrested 16 American citizens and is still holding three — Kim Dong Chul, Kim Sang-duk, and Kim Hak-song. The North is also holding a Canadian citizen Hyeon Soo Lim. North Korea has, in the past, detained an Australian citizen as well.

Another tour company, Koryo Tours, asserts that North Korea “is probably one of the safest countries in the world for a tourist,” claiming on its site that past detainees committed crimes.

The U.S. Department of State “strongly warns” American travelers against visiting North Korea. “U.S. citizens in the DPRK are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” the State Department travel warning reads, “This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the DPRK.'”

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