Warmbier was traveling to China when he signed up for a five-day North Korea trip with Young Pioneer Tours.
Gareth Johnson founded the company in 2008 seeking to create a space for people who usually shy away from group tours, according to the group's website. As a traveler, he fell in love with the people and culture of North Korea, he says. The 20 other higher ups in the company hail from The Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and other places, and one is from the United States, from Albuquerque.
The company is based in Xi'an, China, but also has offices in Almaty, Khazakstan, in central Asia, Dakar, Senegal, in west Africa, Havana and, for North Korea tours, a bar and tourism office called The DMZ Bar in Yangshuo, China, that specializes in trips to North Korea. All tours begin and end in Beijing and travelers enter North Korea by train, according to the company's website. The tours offer themes ranging from politics to biking along the DMZ demilitarized zone between North and South Korea to scuba diving.
The company appears to pull from young people seeking to experience off-the-tourist-track places on a budget. Drinking is a theme too and the company's Yangshuo, China, office that specializes in North Korea doubles as a bar.
In a 2016 piece on the Vibe.com website, Johnson is quoted as saying he launched the company after finding an inexpensive way to get into Hong Kong and getting drunk with a North Korean "in charge of stuff."
Johnson grew up in a working class family in West London and at 21, left England to become a bartender in the Cayman Islands. He also did a stint in Cuba, taught English in China and has made it into Eritrea, an African country undergoing border tensions with Ethiopia.
"I feel that interaction and cultural exchange is always positive," Johnson told Vibe.
At the time, he declined to discuss Warmbier, except to say, "If I bring guests that are respectful, willing to listen, willing to interact with people, North Koreans will see that we are normal people as well."
Traveler Adam Pitt told the Consumer Affairs website of his own trip into North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours that included lots of drinking, including an inebriated Johnson who could barely stand or talk, and bribes paid to tour guards. Johnson did not immediately respond to an e-mail sent to his company account on Monday. Tour guide Rowan Beard told Consumer Affairs that Pitt's account was not factual, and that while people do drink beer on the tours, it is not excessive.And that name, "Young Pioneers." I really doubt that it's a coincidence. That was the name of the organization in the old Soviet Union that prepared teens and young adults for Communist party membership.
Does Johnson still feel that "cultural exchange is always positive?"