North Korean statues
Statues of Kim Jeong-il and Kim Il-sung in North Korea. (iStock)

A traveller's guide to the perils of souvenir hunting

By Simon Vaughan

Souvenir hunting is a large part of travel, but grabbing the wrong memento can get you in serious trouble.

A few weeks ago, 21 year-old Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour and imprisonment in North Korea. From what we know of Warmbier and the trial, he doesn't appear to be a spy, a political agitator, a human rights campaigner or a missionary. Instead, he simply seems to be an American university student who chose to travel to North Korea for his vacation instead of hitting the beaches of Daytona or taking a 15-day coach tour of Europe.

It is not illegal to be a tourist in North Korea. In fact, the totalitarian state is more than happy to have foreigners pay stacks of hard Western currency to visit, albeit carefully guided and completely monitored throughout. Warmbier booked his tour through an experienced and authorized Western-owned, Chinese-based travel company that has been taking groups into the Democratic People's Republic for years. He entered legally via China and saw the usual sights, including Pyongyang and the Demilitarized Zone.

Warmbier fell afoul of North Korean law when he allegedly stole a propaganda poster from the wall of his hotel corridor one evening, as captured by the hotel's closed-circuit television cameras.

Theft is against the law everywhere, but most light-fingered visitors wouldn't be punished with more than a fine or eviction from the hotel. However, in some places, a very hefty fine, a short prison sentence or even deportation from the country isn't out of the question. Fifteen years of hard labour is unusual, however.

"It's one thing to slip a souvenir coaster from a famous L.A. bar or luxury hotel into your pocket, but quite another to steal a propaganda poster from a totalitarian state."

I have no wish to further dump on Warmbier, as even if he's released by North Korea in the coming months in exchange for foreign aid or diplomatic brownie points (as is often the case), he will most certainly have paid the price for his actions and will likely never stray again while travelling—that is, if he ever strays from his native Ohio again.

However, while theft is theft, it's one thing to slip a souvenir coaster from a famous L.A. bar or luxury hotel into your pocket, but quite another to steal a propaganda poster from a totalitarian state. Yet I have little doubt that Warmbier is not the first to have done so. There are countries where it is illegal to export the currency—even a single banknote—yet how many experienced, sensible and otherwise cautious and law-abiding travellers have gotten away with one little bill tucked deep within the pages of their book?

Then there's the trade in illegal items. It's easy to assume that if something's being openly sold in a bustling market popular with local residents and visiting travellers, then it must be okay to buy. Perhaps you're well enough versed to know what Canada allows back within its borders, and therefore wouldn't buy the chunk of coral or turtle-shell jewellery that's widely on offer, but are you equally well-versed as to what is permitted to leave that particular country in the first place?

north korea
Propagandic tatues in Pyeongyang, North Korea. (iStock)

Many countries have very strict rules on the exportation of cultural or religious items. When the Soviet Union collapsed, beautiful gold-leaf icons were offered on practically every street corner along with genuine KGB identity cards and military cap badges. The fact that they were being offered not in some shady back-alley, but out in the open within easy view of the local police, would suggest to the uninitiated that there was nothing at all wrong with the trade. However, more than a few tourists found themselves in very serious trouble when they tried to leave the country, and ended up having their purchases confiscated and paying huge fines—or large bribes—just to get home.

Vacations are synonymous with fun. Even when we're struggling with the language, getting lost six times a day or being cheated by a rickshaw driver, we're still usually having a good time. In an environment like that it's easy to become complacent and believe that nothing can go wrong. It's all too common to assume that because we're Canadian or American or European that if we quite innocently break the law, that the law will simply wag a finger, tut-tut, smile nicely and wave us on our way.

But the reality is different. The level of federal corruption is irrelevant—being on holiday is no prophylactic against prosecution. Next time you're face-to-face with a propaganda poster, think of Otto Warmbier and his 15 years of hard labour. He probably thought it was all good fun, too.

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