In April of this year, Otto Warmbier was detained in Pyongyang, North Korea and was charged with “acts of hostility towards the DPRK” and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. I sympathize with his parents, family, and friends, who have a loved one working all hours of the day with working conditions so terrible it rivals Auschwitz. However, not for a second, do I sympathize with Warmbier himself. No money in the world could bribe me to feel sorry for him. Hear me out.
I have been completely infatuated with the secret regime of North Korea for a good 5 years now. I’ve read books, traveled, and have watched countless documentaries on the Kim Dynasty. There have been unfair and awful circumstances where people have been detained and had to sit through grueling events. Perhaps the most popular was the kidnapping of the famous South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his on again/off again lover, Actress Choi Eun Hee. They were both lured to Hong Kong and kidnapped, only to arrive on North Korean soil for the purposes of making films against their will. Otto, was not kidnapped against his will, nor did he get detained for just for being American and not doing anything wrong.
In an almost paradoxical sense, North Korea is one of the safest places to visit. Visitors are put on a guided tour the whole time they are there. The exposure to local citizens will be minimal, the visitors don’t don’t have to worry about theft. Visitors are constantly shuttled into buses and private vans so there is no chance of being mugged by a cab driver. But, with all this safety, why are people so afraid to go? Why are people deathly afraid to travel? I can assume it’s due to the insane punishments received for doing even the slightest thing wrong. And in a sense, it is kind of terrifying.
It IS terrifying to know that if you take a picture of the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, or try to sneak off to go see things you weren’t meant to see on the state run guided tour, you could be imprisoned But, if you actually adhere to the travel do’s and dont’s given to you by the tour company, everything will be just fine. Sometimes, it’s better to just shut up and keep your ears open. I can almost guarantee you’ll learn something new if you do. In fact you actually have multiple travel briefs, including a DPRK Travel Agreement. The picture shown below is probably THE most important thing to realize if you decide on going to North Korea.
That’s right, by signing the travel agreement, you understand that this tour group may not be able to help you out if you get into trouble. There is also no diplomatic relations between NK and the majority of the world. For US citizens, the only consular services you can receive are provided by the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang. Sweden is the protecting power over US the citizens within North Korea, and they can’t do much outside of notifying your parents that you were detained. You will be subject to North Korean law, and if the judge who punishes you is in a good mood, you might just get deported rather than jail time.
So, with all this warning, Warmbier still decided to pull the dumbest move in a state that watches your every move. Otto Warmbier was spending an evening in the Yanggakdo Hotel in PyongYang when he decided to go to the employee only floor of the hotel and swipe a propaganda banner that was prominently displayed on the wall. The banner read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong Il’s Patriotism!” When has stealing ever been a good idea? No only did he make himself look bad, he embarrassed his tour group.Tensions are are always high between the US and NK, and this definitely didn’t help the situation.
On the final day of the tour, and as he was getting ready to board a plane back to Shenyang, China, he was detained and the banner was found tucked away in his luggage. Soon after he appeared in North Korean court. In a NK court, you always lose. Even if the government appoints you a lawyer, he will just be there for translation and to create the illusion of having a somewhat solid justice system with the accused having a fair chance to prove his innocence. We all know the judge has more power than lawyers and a jury combined.
So, while in court, Otto pulled out all the stops to shift the blame to someone or something else. Otto’s statement was that someone from a Church he attended to offered to give him a used car with about a 10,000$ value for a piece of propaganda from PyongYang. He started to sob and deeply apologize. And as heartfelt as it was, it wasn’t convincing enough to get out of jail time. In the midst of all this turmoil, North Korea is still conducting its Nuclear Tests despite the rest of the world (Including its allies China and Russia) telling them to stop. In one of the most crucial eras of global security, someone has to pull someone as dumb as this.
As of now, Otto is still in a Labor Camp within North Korea and it doesn’t look like he’s getting out anytime soon. UN personnel are attempting to work with the NK government to release him on some sort of Humanitarian grounds. Many speculate he is being held as leverage to keep people from questioning their aforementioned nuclear program. Whatever happens, I think some prison time will do Otto some good and make him realize the severity of screwing with one of the most unpredictable regimes in history.
- Is Korean Reunification Possible? - April 24, 2018
- From Tiananmen to Today: Interview with a Tiananmen Protester - February 10, 2017
- Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, and a Pyongyang Showdown - November 17, 2016