Kenyan Man Headed for South Korea Accidentally Travels to Pyongyang, North Korea

by REERA YOO | @reeraboo

Planning to attend the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics? Be sure to book your flight to the right Korea, unlike a certain Kenyan traveler who accidentally traveled to North Korea last September.

Daniel Olomae Ole Sapit, a 42-year-old representative for indigenous cow herders in the semi-nomadic Maasai tribe in Kenya, was invited to attend a United Nations conference on biodiversity in PyeongChang, a town that lies just 110 miles east of Seoul.

Instead, he found himself in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang.

“Pyongyang and Pyeongchang,” Sapit recalls. “For an African, who can tell the difference?”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the two similar sounding names had confused both Sapit and Shenaz Neky, his travel agent in Nairobi.”

Neky claimed that she was only given the name of the final destination and when she typed “PyeongChang” into the reservation system, it linked her with the closest match, Pyongyang.

“The name of the towns are very similar. Apparently it’s a mistake that is very commonly made,” she said. “This was the first time I’ve done a booking to North Korea.”

Even after boarding the Air China flight to Pyongyang, Sapit did not suspect anything to be wrong. It was only when he peered out the window as the plane descended into Sunan International Airport that the Kenyan national thought something was amiss.

“It seemed to be me a very underdeveloped country,” said Sapit, who was expecting to see the highly urbanized and industrialized cityscape of South Korea.

He said his suspicions were confirmed when he saw hundreds of soldiers and portraits of the ruling Kim family. Sapit was almost immediately apprehended after customs discovered that he did not have an entry visa.

BN-IA161_PYEONG_M_20150421183847Sapit takes a selfie after landing safely in South Korea. His expression reads: “Never again.”

After being interrogated in an inspection room for several hours and signing a form attesting to violating travel laws, Sapit was eventually allowed to leave the country and board a flight to Incheon International Airport from Beijing. However, he had to pay for his new ticket and a fine of $500 for entering North Korea without a visa.

Dick Pound, a Canadian member of the International Olympic Committee, said in 2002, there was “a bit of initial confusion” when PyeongChang was first announced as a bidder for the upcoming Winter Olympics, according to the WSJ.

The 2018 Winter Olympics organizing committee has already taken measures to rebrand the host town, changing the spelling from “Pyongchang” to “PyeongChang.” Even Wikipedia has included a disclaimer in the town’s wiki page that reads: “Not to be confused with Pyonyang.”

Sapit said he will never forget his memorable trip to Pyongyang, but strongly advised 2018 Winter Olympics attendees to “study the names like the fine print of insurance contracts.”