Back Travel » Experience: I Was a Tour Guide in North Korea During the Era of Otto Warmbier

Experience: I Was a Tour Guide in North Korea During the Era of Otto Warmbier

In 2017, I worked as a tour guide and social media manager for the same North Korean tour company that brought Otto Warmbier to visit the nation. The period climaxed, tragically, in his death. Back then, as much as now, I was met with a predictable measure of disbelief. 

“You’re a what?”

Sat in a busy bar in central Beijing, I’d see this scene play out dozens of times in the few months I spent living in China’s capital. On the rare occasion my colleagues and I got the chance to go into the city for a drink, we made the point of trying not to talk about work.

“You mean, you’ve actually been?”

We generally made the agreement that none of us would bring it up with strangers when we were out together – unless one of us was trying to impress someone. The reactions to our answer to the staple “what do you do?” question typically sat somewhere between fascination, horror, or worse – disbelief – which made continuing the conversation in any other vein impossible.

Yet, pathetically, I adored every chance I had to confuse a total stranger with how I was a North Korean tour guide. I felt proud – like I’d been granted a special government clearance or was a character in a John le Carre novel. In reality, I ended up feeling much less extraordinary, trying in vain to save me and my friends from an impending storm and dying to go home.

In the summer of 2016, when working in a graduate position as a corporate marketing intern, I naturally spent my time looking for jobs on the other side of the planet. I applied directly from the stuffy office I worked in, before booking a one-way flight to China.

It was just the opportunity I had been looking for. I had always been fascinated – to the point of obsession – with secretive states, communist dictatorships, and the kind of mind-bending indoctrination that seem to facilitate these regimes. Communist kitsch played a part here too; the stark Soviet architecture, the hats, the stenciled propaganda posters. North Korea provided endless material to sate every one of my fascinations. I was hooked.

At the time, I couldn’t put my finger on precisely why North Korea did it for me so much, much less explain my decision to friends and family who, understandably, assumed I was in the midst of some kind of well-organized neurosis. According to The Economist, people like me are simply hipsters with pitiful regard for human suffering. In my case, this is only partially true. The body of literature I read about North Korea affected me greatly; tales of labor camps, three-generation condemnation, public executions, and famine. They kept me awake at night and preoccupied my thoughts. How could ordinary people live in this country?

Local students on their way home from school.

Of course, terribly dark things happened, and continue to happen, in North Korea - that’s a fact. But surely the people of North Korea ate, slept and loved like the rest of us? It was this human-sized North Korea that interested me, rather than the unimaginable bleakness of the regime. I didn’t know that I would be reckoning with both sides of the coin.

Before I knew it, I was on a plane to China, where I was to begin an internship for a major North Korean travel agency. This internship initially involved grafting at the company affiliated bar in rural Southwest China, where my duties involved selling tours and testing my mettle by drinking with tourists and regulars every night.

Drinking was, surprisingly, a huge part of the experience in North Korea too. I realized this on my first, exhilarating trip. The Koreans can and do drink a lot, earning them the surprising moniker “Irish of the East”. Every North Korean man receives 1.3 gallons (approximately six liters) worth of beer tokens every month. I thought about paying GBP6 for a pint (0.57 liters) in Cambridge. Was life here really that bad?

Yet, it was in one of the state-owned beer bars in central Pyongyang that I had what would be my only remotely political conversation with a North Korean. He was a young, handsome student from Pyongyang’s Tourism University, who was acting as one of our minders for the tour. Usually meticulously careful with the personal questions I asked our guides, I let my guard down for long enough to ask him if he’s ever thought about what life was like in other countries.

He said yes, his eyes focusing on the handle of his glass as he told me how, during his childhood, shortly after the period of intense famine which eventually wiped out up to 3.5 million people, he took a trip to the border between China and North Korea with his father. He told me quietly how he looked over at the lush, green forest of China. He looked back at his side of the border, at the yellow, barren land in which he stood. Why had his country suffered from floods and famine, and yet they had not?

Rare interactions such as this brought the entire surreal reality of the situation crashing back down to earth and, for a moment, I was in in the very North Korea I had read about. The chintzy décor, dated infrastructure, and immaculate, well-designed public squares become sinister. The entire internal tourism industry is, however, tightly orchestrated to ensure these moments don’t exist.

Leading a tour group through North Korea.

On the whole, it was easy to forget the true strangeness of the country. For one thing, I was working as a tour guide, which required an incredible amount of organization, perkiness and sleep deprivation. Tours went by in a whir of grand monuments, peculiar meals and hours of karaoke. 

When I wasn’t in North Korea, the job was relatively banal. As the company’s social media manager, I spent endless hours answering emails, scheduling tweets and browsing data. My minimal time out of the office, though, included braving the cramped Beijing metro to deliver pre-tour information, forgotten T-shirts, or collecting visas. For the latter, I would covertly meet an unmarked car outside the North Korean embassy, from which a man would quickly hand me the visas and drive away… It was during one of these long weeks in the Beijing office that everything changed.

In the summer of 2017, press reports began to leak out that Otto Warmbier, a former customer who had been detained in North Korea the year previously, was being released from jail. The details of his arrest, sentence and condition I can’t go into, but what I can say is that our work as we knew it would never be the same.

Details began to emerge about Otto’s health; that he was brain dead, that he had supposedly contracted botulism and had been unresponsive since his sentencing in early 2016. Just as we were all trying to come to terms with this information, amid an already brewing media storm, we received the news that he’d passed away at home in the United States.

I should mention at this point that tensions between the US and North Korea had been accelerating rapidly. Tours had been going on as usual, and occasionally our Korean guides would innocently ask for information about what was going on. Missile tests, traded barbs and ‘fire and fury’ were all constant features in the media on both sides, as well as in phone conversations with my mother, which began to feel more like hostage negotiations than our usual catch-ups.

Tensions between the US and North Korea had reached boiling point several times before, and this hostility was actually part of a predictable cycle of sanctions, threats and aid. But the pervasiveness of the story and the intensity at which it was reported regularly made me feel like I was stuck in the center of a tornado.

The two weeks that followed Otto’s death were the eye of the storm. I actually remember very little. I was tasked with staying up day and night deleting thousands of vicious comments from our social media accounts. Even on the planet’s most vanilla social media platform, Pinterest, I would systematically delete scores of comments per day wishing for the death of myself and my colleagues in various forms. It was dulling, monotonous and occasionally frightening, but more than anything else, it was a lesson in how powerful the story had become, and how deeply people could hate those they knew nothing about.

Yet their rage was, of course, understandable. Otto was a young man at the start of a promising life and we, to the rest of the world, were the manipulators who enticed him from his home and brought him to North Korea. The narrative was as black and white as it could possibly be.

We all felt it, too. Many hours were spent in the office silently contemplating our own part in this unbelievable event. I hid from the outside, while fielding constant calls, emails and at times even surprise visits from major news corporations, including CNN and the South China Morning Post, to our office. Every letter was torn apart and reconstituted into an admission of guilt or negligence.

Eventually, however, time passed, although a feeling of threat lingered above our heads for months. And, when I felt the storm had calmed, I decided to leave the company, my dream of seeing the Hermit Kingdom tainted, albeit fulfilled.

I rarely look back to my life in Beijing, but when I do, I’m often left with the feeling that a lot has occurred in an inordinately short amount of time. Trump and Kim Jong Un met each other in July – a move that once seemed unthinkable. But, in the never-ending trail of unbelievable events that increasingly form the basis of our reality, here we are.

I regret nothing about choosing to travel to North Korea and would encourage anyone with an interest and the means to do so. Only by seeing a place can you understand the people, and you will quickly realize that the government is not its subjects, and vice versa. The kindness, warmth, and humanity of those I was lucky enough to meet in North Korea will stay with me forever.

Lana O'Sullivan is a freelance writer from the UK who currently lives in Hanoi. For more info about O'Sullivan or her time as a North Korean tour guide, check out her LinkedIn

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