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Tour Guides Say They Will Scale Back Trips to North Korea

FILE - American student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, March 16, 2016. North Korea's highest court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years in prison after he allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner.

The death this week of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, who was recently released by North Korea after spending several months in detention there, was an "unfortunate event," Chinese officials said Tuesday at a news conference in Beijing.

Warmbier, 22, from Ohio, was detained in February 2016 during a so-called adventure trip to North Korea. He was medically evacuated in a coma to the U.S. last week and died Monday. Doctors at Cincinnati Hospital said he had brain damage that most likely was caused by deprivation of oxygen, not botulism, which the North Korean government said had caused Warmbier's illness.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed condolences to Warmbier's family, according to the Korean publication Chosun Ilbo.

Young Pioneer Tours, headquartered in Xi'an, China — the agency that arranged Warmbier's "budget" tour to North Korea — released a statement Tuesday saying it would no longer organize tours for U.S. citizens to North Korea. The travel agency said that after Warmbier was arrested in North Korea at the airport, representatives tried to see the University of Virginia student, but their requests were rejected.

On its Facebook page, Young Pioneer Tours expressed deep sympathy to Warmbier's friends and family. "We have been struggling to process the result," the agency said in a post.

VOA called Young Pioneer Travel repeatedly at its Xi'an headquarters but reached only its answering machine.

Effect on tours

One Beijing-based travel agent who said his name was Gong told VOA that Warmbier's death "no doubt" would negatively impact "foreigners' interest in traveling to North Korea." A number of foreign travel agencies in Beijing that arrange travel to the DPRK said they were suspending these tours.

Travel agents in Asia pointed out that at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing, foreign tourists can apply for a travel visa by submitting a passport and photo at a cost of 70 euros, and receive approval within a few days for a four-to-five-day tour. Foreign tourists to the DPRK are accompanied by at least two local tour guides and are free to move only 50 meters away from the hotel, Gong said.

Spokesperson Geng Shuang from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Chinese government hoped the U.S. and North Korea would be able to handle the incident "properly."

North Korean authorities said Warmbier was arrested for alleged theft of political slogans hanging in a Pyongyang hotel where he was staying. When brought to court, he was seen on video tearfully pleading guilty in March 2016 and was sentenced to 15 years at a labor camp.

Pyongyang has not responded to Warmbier's death. North Korean authorities said last week that Warmbier's release was "out of humanitarian considerations."

Three other U.S. citizens are detained in North Korea.