More than a month ago, Merrill Newman, an elderly American disappeared into North Korea. Pulled off a flight on the final day of a guided tour, the Korean War veteran was missing until he reappeared over the weekend in a video reading a stilted — and likely staged — apology. Reading a four-page, handwritten letter, Newman says he served as an adviser to the Kuwol unit, a clandestine, anticommunist guerrilla force that fought behind enemy lines during the war.
Newman’s detention prompted the State Department to update its North Korea travel advisory with a warning about the risk of “arbitrary arrest and detention.” Their advice for would-be adventurers: don’t go.
But people are going. China-based tour operators that specialize in taking foreigners to North Korea say the ordeal of the 85-year-old Newman has not deterred travelers. Beijing-based Koryo Tours and Xian-based Young Pioneer Tours both have had groups in North Korea since his detention, and have more trips scheduled between now and year’s end. Koryo has not had a single cancellation; Young Pioneer had one, but insists they aren’t worried. “For every one person that cancels we probably pick up five,” says Christopher P. White, travel director for Young Pioneer. “When things like this happen, we see a surge in interest.”
(MORE: A 21st Century North Korea POW)
The irony is that bad news from North Korea often deepens people’s desire to visit. Despite this year’s nuclear standoff and, now, the detention of an American grandfather, the tourist sector is thriving. Koryo’s tours took roughly 2,400 people this year, Young Pioneer another 1,000. Each say about a quarter of their clients are from the U.S. Many are drawn to North Korea by curiosity, while some are “country collectors,” checking locations off their list. There are thrill seekers too. Young Pioneer’s website promises to take travelers “where others fear to tread.” Another slogan: “Taking you to the places your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
There were no doubt a few worried families when word of Newman’s disappearance broke. Simon Cockerell, a veteran guide for Koryo Tours, was in North Korea with a group of about 50 travelers, including 12 Americans, when a friend informed him, via WeChat, that a U.S. tourist had been pulled off a plane. He says his North Korean colleagues at Korea International Travel Company seemed just as surprised as him. “It was a shock to them,” he says. “They didn’t want it to be true, nor did anybody.”
Cockerell gathered all the tourists together and gave them the news. He then took them to a hotel with a decent wi-fi connection so they could reach out to those back home. There were a lot of questions, he says, but no panic, and the tour continued without incident. “The kind of person who books a trip to North Korea is the kind of person who has traveled a lot, who has done their research,” he says. “They know exactly what they are in for.”
In recent years, those detained or arrested by Pyongyang were usually journalists (like Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who were arrested while reporting at China’s border with North Korea) or Christian missionaries (like current detainee Kenneth Bae). Both Koryo and Young Pioneer say tourist travel to North Korea is safe. A notice posted on Koryo’s website last week notes that in 20 years of operation, there has yet to be an arrest or detention. “We have been taking in a lot of people for a long time now, and nothing like this has happened,” says Young Pioneer’s White.
Judging by the carefully choreographed statement, Newman’s case appears to turn on his alleged involvement in clandestine operations. Yet, Korean War vets have visited North Korea before without incident. It’s unclear if the company that organized Newman’s trip, Juche Travel Services, knew about his military service. Juche declined to talk to TIME about Newman.
Both Koryo and Young Pioneer have December tours scheduled and will push ahead as planned. Starved for foreign currency, Pyongyang says it wants to develop tourism and is building new development zones, airports and hotels. There is even a ski resort in the works.
That won’t happen in time for Young Pioneer’s New Year’s Eve trip, but the itinerary is shaping up nicely, says White. Young Pioneer has 2o people signed up to party in Pyongyang. “We’re going to tour local microbreweries, some of the fancier local restaurants,” he says. “We’re really going to hit it up.”