Amid tensions between the United States and North Korea, a small number of Americans have visited the country on organised tours even though a travel warning on the US State Department’s website reads, “Do not travel to North Korea due to the continuing serious risk of arrest and long-term detention of US nationals. The US government is unable to provide emergency services to US citizens in North Korea.”
US citizens have been detained in North Korea several times since 1996. These include tourists, scholars and journalists. Here are some of the most notable cases from the last decade.
Otto Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested while visiting North Korea as part of a tour group in 2016. The visit was organised by a China-based budget tour operator as a five-day trip to experience North Korea during the New Year. His father later told the Washington Post that he was “curious about their culture” and “wanted to meet the people of North Korea” but was put in detention for two months and sentenced by a North Korean court to 15 years’ imprisonment. He was freed 17 months after his arrest, and died in a hospital six days after returning to the US in 2017.
In 2018, North Korea announced that Bruce Byron Lowrance – a 60-year-old from Michigan – had been detained while entering the country from China. He was released about a month after being detained. He has not commented publicly on his detention.
Matthew Miller, a 24-year-old teacher from California, was taken into custody and charged with “hostile” espionage acts while on an organised tour in 2014. North Korean authorities later alleged he admitted to a “wild ambition” of investigating conditions in the country. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment with hard labour in September 2014.
“I was trying to stay in the country. They wanted me to leave. The very first night they said, ‘We want you to leave on the next flight.’ But I refused. I just did not leave,” Matthew Miller said.