'It's unbelievable': Traveler describes trip to North Korea

When hearing stories like that of Otto Warmbier, many wonder why risk traveling to a country like North Korea. But one Austinite said it was a once in a lifetime experience, but she also feels what happened to Warmbier could have happened to anyone.

Family members of Otto Warmbier have made plans for his funeral later this week.

The 22-year-old died Monday after coming home in a coma from North Korea last week.

He was imprisoned in the country for more than a year for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster.

Autopsy results are expected this week.

Tuesday, the Trump administration considered a ban on all American travel to North Korea. 

Many wonder why risk going there.

Grace Fletcher told KVUE she traveled to North Korea, and it was a once in a lifetime trip.

"I felt with my love for traveling that this is too good of an opportunity to pass up,” said Fletcher.

Fletcher loves to travel, and even spent a few years teaching in China.

"The last year, my friend said 'hey they're running a race in North Korea, would you like to go,' I'm like, uh, okay yeah," said Fletcher.

It was a rare chance to see the mysterious country.

"I was like when else am I going to have this opportunity to travel to North Korea,” said Fletcher.

She wanted to see a country she had heard about, but not a lot of people had seen.

"It's definitely one of those things that I wanted to experience, because who gets the chance to go to North Korea and see that,” said Fletcher. “We hear so many stories and read books, but can you really vouch for that unless you see it with your own eyes."

But, before the trip even started, she said they got a list of warnings.

"Do not talk about North Korea in any disrespectful manner, make sure you're not bringing up any politics, just go and observe, really be there as a tourist,” said Fletcher. "You have to give your passport upon arrival, obviously no cell phone usage, no internet, so you really are off the grid."

Fletcher made sure to follow the rules.

"Even though you have a hotel room to go back to, you're still kind of hesitant to speak openly because you do not know who is listening,” said Fletcher. “There are certain things where you just kind of have to step back and let it happen, and then discuss it once you get back into the United States."

She said they ran along city streets, and into a stadium lined with North Koreans. It was five days of positive words about the country.

"It's a lot of your tour guide speaking very positively about Kim Jong Un, and Kim Jong Il, and how strong and confident the soldiers are, and how great it is to be here, and be part of a beautiful country as North Korea," said Fletcher.

For most of the trip, Fletcher said they weren't allowed to take photos.

"The entire time there, they're reiterating the rules, do not take pictures of even a building that was broken down,” said Fletcher. "They have the authority to take your camera and delete any photos they feel did not represent North Korea at its perfection.”

Until they got to the U.S. ship captured during the Korean war.

"Inside the boat you could see bullet holes, they have the blood soaked garments of our soldiers, and it was scary to see how much like satisfaction, and how they're beaming over this fact of these are your soldiers garments, we took over that ship,” said Fletcher.

She said there were several instances of things she saw, like a document saying the U.S. lost the Korean War, that she couldn’t believe.

"It’s unbelievable, you don't believe what you're seeing until you're there, I felt like I was on a movie set the entire time, I didn't know where I was, I was off the grid,” said Fletcher.

KVUE spoke to Fletcher about Warmbier’s case.

"It is a very disheartening story to hear, and the reality of it, is that could have happened to anybody, I think that was kind of the scariest thing,” said Fletcher.

Despite any fears, she thinks a travel ban will only encourage people to travel there.

"If it’s banned, if it’s something I shouldn't be doing, of course I definitely want to be check it out now,” said Fletcher. “So I feel like if people want to visit, they're going to visit."

She also feels it’s something people can learn from.

"Firsthand accounts are definitely a little bit more stronger than just reading it, or hearing it from someone else," said Fletcher.

Her trip was a visit she's thankful she got to take, and come home from safely.

"I'm very fortunate that I had the opportunity to go on that trip, and to experience something like that,” said Fletcher.

As for Warmbier, he was studying abroad in China, when he decided to take a trip to North Korea.

We spoke to several universities in Central Texas about their study abroad protocol.

According to the University of Texas, they have 3,000 students in 80 countries each year.

But, they also have a list of restricted regions.

The highest alert level is on countries like Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Central African Republic and Syria.

North Korea's risk level is third highest.

Southwestern, UT, and TX State say safety is their number one priority for students.

They each told KVUE, they won't approve a program in a country where there is a travel warning from the US State Department.

They also each say they talk to students about health and safety, but say when they choose to take a personal trip to another country there's not much they can do.

Some of the most popular places to study abroad: the UK, Spain, France, and China.

 

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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