Banned from the industry: One agent’s North Korea travel experience

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This article was originally published on NK News.

For Walter Keats, North Korea was far from the first out-of-the-way location he had taken tour groups to. A social anthropology graduate from Harvard, he began his travel industry career in China as the country opened up in the 1970s, making him one of the first American tour operators to arrange commercial tours there.

“Over the succeeding years I expanded the business into other East Asian countries,” he said over email. “Particularly Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau and Southeast Asia. Our focus also shifted from group tours to custom, upscale individual and small group tours with an emphasis on history, culture and food.”

“So you wanna know the exact date I joined the (Workers’ Party of Korea)?” he joked. It’s a dark joke, characteristic of his sense of humor, but the story of how he began taking tours to North Korea, only to be banned five years later, is undoubtedly an odd one.

COLLISION COURSE

It all lies with an eccentric Japanese wrestler and Diet member with a soft spot for the DPRK. The year was 1995, and Antonio Inoki, hoping to honor a Korean mentor of his and build diplomatic bridges, was organizing the “Collision in Korea,” the largest pay-per-view wrestling event in history, to take place at the May Day Stadium in the heart of Pyongyang.

“All we knew was it was an international sporting event, and they were allowing Americans to go at pretty short notice,” Keats said. “But I was able to find out about it and was able to go.”

He went with a friend of his, an orthopedic surgeon from LA – the joke being that, if arrested and beaten up, they’d at least have a medical expert on hand. They were there for nine days, flying in from Beijing and seeing “a fair amount of the country,” with the highlight of the trip, said Keats, being a chance encounter in Koryo Hotel with Muhammed Ali – who was in-country to fight Inoki, a friend of his.

The country stuck with him, but this was April 1995, and the famine that would kill millions was beginning to take hold, and so nothing happened for much of the ’90s. But opportunity returned a few years later at a travel industry trade show in Singapore, where Keats met a North Korean trying to promote tourism to the country. The two struck up a conversation, and when the man told Keats that Americans could not enter his country, Keats retorted that he’d already been several years previously.

“The left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” he said. “I gave him my card, and didn’t hear anything for a while. Subsequently I started getting emails from this guy, if you can believe it.”

Numerous opportunities for tours were raised, but also at a month or so notice, not enough time to source customers and get together the paperwork needed. This changed in 2005, when the government began to get serious about foreign tourism as a source of currency. Keats heard word from Pyongyang that he could bring a tour for an Arirang event in the summer, and he began reaching out to groups who might be interested in going. Some 200 people signed up, particularly from prestigious universities such as Princeton and Harvard. They wanted to bring tourists genuinely interested in the country, he said, not “young males who wanna go get drunk in North Korea.”

But disaster struck when Typhoon Ewiniar made land on the Korean Peninsula. Pyongyang and the May Day stadium were flooded in a natural disaster that humanitarian groups would later estimate killed up to 10,000 people. The trip was off, but the North Koreans kept their word, and the next year Keats was able to bring people into the country.

“We weren’t real happy, but then they sent us stuff about doing 2007, and we started taking small groups there,” said Keats. “It started out basically as five-day trips, you go in on day one and come out on day five.”

They began sending tours into the country, and by 2012 Keats had taken, he estimates, “30-35” tours into the DPRK. But after a five-year run, he was banned.

It certainly came as a surprise. It was April 2012, and the news came at a busy time: Keats was arranging a large group to visit the country for a special occasion: the 100th birthday of the “Eternal President” Kim ll Sung, and the mass Arirang Games that were set to take place in Pyongyang.

“It was gonna be a big thing,” he said. “We had this group, and the North Koreans were dragging their feet for a while.”

“Then they finally said that, you know, my wife and I were not allowed to come back to North Korea.”

They were baffled – no official explanation was given. But it was strongly suggested that something had been done to cause offense and that they were being punished for it. Racking their brains they could think of only one explanation: in 2007 they had taken a Stanford professor of literature, Adam Johnson, on a five-day trip into the country.

At the time it had been impossible to know that Adam Johnson would go on to the write the best-selling, and later Pulitzer-winning, novel The Orphan Master’s Son. A story set in the DPRK about a government-paid kidnapper, and the tensions between his private life and the repression of North Korean society, it does not paint a flattering picture of life in the country, and it is harshly critical of the late Kim Jong Il.

The runaway success of the book and the international acclaim it received, Keats said, must have caused fury in Pyongyang. Looking around for someone to blame, the American tour company which had taken Johnson in-country in the first place was an obvious target.

“Somebody has to be blamed for that, it won the Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “It’s quite embarrassing, it didn’t just badmouth North Korea, it badmouthed Kim Jong Il, right? That’s even worse.”

“And so that’s the only thing to us that makes sense as to why we could have done anything that would piss them off. He’d come in (to North Korea) in 2007 for a short five-day tour, he was a professor of literature at Stanford – he didn’t say he was gonna write a book on North Korea!”

‘… it seems like everyone who deals with the North Koreans eventually gets burned’

Johnson told NK News in an email that he only met Keats once before his trip, for a coffee, and was struck by his knowledge of the country. He only found out about the ban two years later, from a journalist, describing it as “terrible news.”

“As you know, though, officials in Pyongyang rarely give reasons for their actions,” he said, “and it seems like everyone who deals with the North Koreans eventually gets burned.”

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DEAR LEADER IS WATCHING

Looming over the question of how Keats was banned is how the North Koreans were able to so comprehensively find out that Adam Johnson had come into the country five years previously. The answer, he said, is that the North Koreans keep organized records of the foreigners coming into the country, digitizing Visas and, presumably, maintaining archives which can be referred to at a later date. If you’ve traveled to the DPRK, there’s a file on you, he said.

“So they know it all – in a police state that’s what you do, right? That’s how you control people,” he said. “There’s definitely a file, everybody’s got a file. They know everything.”

It was impossible, of course, for Keats to know that Johnson was planning to write a book, but the case of Walter Keats and Adam Johnson also brings to bear a crucial issue that many tour companies face: the question of to what degree to which companies are responsible for the behavior of the people they take into the country.

The authorities would like to hold companies accountable for all the misdeeds of their customers, and it’s something they try to set in stone with all prospective touring partners. Keats said that when making preparations for taking his first tours into the country, it was requested that they sign a contract with a clause that, if any of their tourists were to misbehave seriously, Asia Pacific Travel would be responsible and would have to pay the North Koreans for the trouble. But it was not prerequisite for taking tours, he said, and, oddly, there was no fuss when they refused to sign.

“It wasn’t something that went on and on for months, where they said you can’t bring anybody unless you sign this,” he said. “I mean it never got to that point, it didn’t appear to be that big a deal.”

“I resisted signing it, told them I didn’t wanna do it, and nobody forced us to do it.”

And they weren’t alone: both Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours and Andrea Lee of Uri Tours – British and American-ran companies – told NK News they were never asked to sign such an agreement. But Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, which describes itself as the “budget” alternative, said that he signed it.

That fact that that Keats and his colleagues did not sign any contract meant that, he admits, there was a great deal of trust placed in him by the North Koreans. And while many might assume that doing business with North Korean travel companies is as regimented as North Korean society, Keats argues that is it much more about building relationships and establishing a trusting working friendship than about a contractual partnership. He compares it to the Chinese notion of guanxi, which roughly translates to “connections” and “relationships,” and thanks to his trip in 1995, he had developed an on-again, off-again working relationship with KITC by 2007.

“If you know people then you can’t just make a cold call on somebody, you know they won’t talk to you,” he said. “You have to have someone introduce you, take them to dinner, wine them and dine them and stuff, build a relationship and then you can do business.”

It was with these connections at the KITC office in Beijing that Keats conducted much of the day-to-day business of running tours to North Korea, which included making payments. These were usually sent by Keats to individual bank accounts owned by North Korean state employees, not to accounts directly associated with KITC – presumably to avoid a paper trail leading back to the government.

“That was a little strange,” admits Keats. “In normal business you wouldn’t do that, but that’s the way they do it. Although can you really believe that a bank in China doesn’t know that these are North Koreans doing business? Come on, the Chinese are complicit in all this.”

Keats said at some point he made contact with the United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), the division of the US government responsible for tracking North Korea’s international illicit money-making activities. He offered to tell them how he did business with DPRK-affiliated entities.

“I said, ‘Do you wanna know how I do business with North Koreans, how I’m sending the money?” he said. “They weren’t interested.”

ACCEPTABLE RISKS?

The money they were sending depended heavily on where the customer were coming from – a system similar to the one Keats encountered when working with communist state-run travel companies in the early days of tourism to China.

“The Chinese had a dual system, if you were Chinese, you paid 10 bucks, if you were a foreigner you paid 70 bucks,” he said. “And the same with hotels and other things, there were two prices, because the locals couldn’t afford these things.”

North Korea used “at least” four or five different pricing systems for foreigners: Japanese and Americans paid the highest rates, followed by Europeans and Russians, with tourists from third world countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, paying the lowest rates.

It was the level of trust built up between Asia Pacific Ltd. and the North Koreans he knew that led Keats to take the issue of safety and local etiquette very seriously, he said. He was sure to speak to as many prospective tourists as possible before setting off for North Korea, making clear the behavior that was expected of them when in-country, and estimates that he spoke to “99 percent” of customers over the phone at some point prior to the trip.

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‘If you endanger somebody over there, then you’re immoral and unethical’

“I just told them general questions, making sure they understood how things operated there, etcetera,” he said, when asked what they discussed. “And just to make sure that some loony libertarians aren’t gonna go there and start spouting Adam Smith or Ayn Rand, I mean gimme a break.

“A lot of people when they visit think ‘I’m an American I can do what I want,’ I mean my ass you can. If you endanger somebody over there, then you’re immoral and unethical, you’re a goddamn murderer.”

Thankfully, Keats said he never had any kind of problems with this type of behavior from the tourists he brought in and, save for a few journalists, he never decided against taking someone into the country after speaking to them on the phone.

Keats’ company differed from most of the other tour companies who work with North Korea in a distinct way: It was a mainstream travel company, not one particularly specializing in leftfield holidays. Koryo Tours, for example, offers tourists trips to Turkmenistan – not a usual holiday destination, and Young Pioneer Tours will take customers anywhere from Iran to the unrecognized state of Transnistria. This meant that he was often dealing with customers quite different from what he accustomed to.

“Usually we deal with rich people who are going to China, Japan, Southeast Asia, and will stay in Peninsulas, Mandarin Oriental, Shangri La’s, Four Seasons, etc,” he said. “These are upscale people and they’re well traveled, and educated and all that. They wanna know what the rules are, too – they’re not interested in getting arrested, or anything.”

In contrast, he said, the majority of people interested in going to North Korea are “young males between 20 and 40 looking for adventure.” Not that, he insists, there’s anything wrong with that – but it does mean that a pre-trip briefing is essential. With the cases of Merrill Newman, Matthew Todd Miller, Jeffrey Fowle and Kenneth Bae still fresh in everyone’s mind, Keats’s strong insistence that tour companies should be doing more to keep a closer eye on their customers rings especially true.

Tourism to North Korea is on the rise, with increasing numbers of tourists flocking to Pyongyang for a chance to get a glimpse at one of the world’s most isolated states, or so it seems, and, despite the recent ban, more foreigners than ever participated in the recent Pyongyang Marathon.

But Keats paints a picture of a business model that is inflexible and far from becoming a big time money-maker any time soon, governed by the anxious whims of authorities struggling to balance the need for tourism dollars with the demands of North Korea’s unchallengeable political system and rigid state. He describes the job as a “crapshoot”: risky and full of uncertainty.

“You have make sure everything’s right,” he said. “It’s all very bureaucratic, and, you know, there’s group visas, you gotta get everybody’s things right, make sure nobody’s got any problems. They want the dollars but they’re still very wary of tourists – it’s “come give us your money,” but so they can control you when you’re there.”

Keats still follows developments in Pyongyang, and as well as still running his tourism company he is also a member of the National Committee on North Korea, an NGO comprised of experts on the country which aims to foster peace on the Korean peninsula. But he doesn’t see the future of tourism to the DPRK as particularly bright – at least as long as the government maintains its current restrictive policies.

Last year’s decision of the state, prompted by the panic over the West African Ebola virus, to close its borders to international travelers, was the latest example of this. Keats admits that he breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer doing business there upon hearing the news, and while he said they had a “good run,” he now describes the ban of his wife and him, he said, as being “great” and meaning he is far less stressed than he used to be.

“Look what’s happened to other people, I mean nothing happened to anyone on our tour, whatever, maybe our luck would have run out too, you know,” he said. “That’s the problem with North Korea, there are so many unknowns.”

All photos courtesy of Walter Keats

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