Otto Warmbier was 'reserved' on North Korea trip, says NZ traveller
An Aucklander who was on tour with US man Otto Warmbier admits even he considered stealing communist propaganda while holidaying in North Korea.
Nick Calder is relieved he didn't given that Warmbier did just that and ended up serving what turned into a death sentence in a North Korean prison.
Calder, an Auckland man now living abroad, said he travelled to North Korea for a holiday in December 2015 because he wanted to experience a truly communist country.
He booked a five day tour through a company called Koryo Tours with about 18 other tourists. It travelled alongside another tour company called Young Pioneers with about 50 people.
* US man Otto Warmbier dies after returning home from being detained in North Korea
* To North Korea and back: US student Otto Warmbier's strange, sad trip
* Rodman returns from North Korea. And nothing happened
* American student freed by North Korea 'brutalised'
* Comatose student released by North Korea arrives in US
On Young Pioneers was American Otto Warmbier.
At the end of the tour Warmbier, a University of Virginia student in his early twenties, was arrested at the border by North Korean officials and detained for nearly a year and a half for attempting to remove a propaganda poster from the wall of a hotel.
After 17 months in a North Korean prison, Warmbier was returned to his homeland in a coma with severe brain damage. It wasn't clear what caused the injury but his father said his son was "brutalised". He died Monday afternoon (local time).
Calder said he met Warmbier once during the tour and described him as reserved compared to the rest of the tour party.
"He seemed relatively quiet," Calder said. "Like a normal nice kid, nothing out of the ordinary."
Calder said there was a stark difference between the Young Pioneers travellers and his Koryo Tours group.
Young Pioneers, mostly made up of US tourists, was a rowdy group, often drinking heavily and even fighting in the lobby of a hotel they were staying in.
"We thought they were a bit loose.
"It was noticeable that some people were getting completely wasted."
On arrival in North Korea the Koryo Tours group leader told tourists that while there may be temptation to enter unauthorised areas while on the tour, it came with a real risk of arrest.
The guide stressed that the fifth floor of The Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang - where the group were staying early in the trip - was particularly sensitive.
The Yanggakdo was where Warmbier attempted to steal the poster from, Calder said.
At the end of the holiday, both tour parties headed to the airport together.
On a plane bound for China, Calder noticed a Young Pioneers tour leader looking pale and pacing back and forth. Upon arriving in China he learnt that Warmbier had been detained at the border.
"There was a lot of frantic walking on the plane, back and forth."
Calder said he was not convinced that Warmbier did try steal a poster or whether is was just fabricated by the North Koreans.
"When you got to North Korea it's very difficult to ascertain what is real and what isn't.
"Two days after we left they tested a nuclear weapon so the timing for having an American hostage was pretty good if you know what I mean."
Calder said he too considered stealing propaganda as a souvenir but thought better of it, especially considering the hotels were clearly bugged.
"You kind of just know you're being watched all the time."
He said he would have no qualms about returning to North Korea, especially travelling on a New Zealand passport, which he considered to be much safer.
"I would go back because it's so fascinating, you don't know what's real."