Originally published in Hankyoreh.
North Korea is not a tourist destination that I generally recommend for Americans.
South Koreans have special reasons to visit the country – to see members of their divided families, to visit legendary places like Mt. Paektu, to experience an alternative Korean reality. Chinese tourists visit North Korea to get a taste of their own more austere Communist past. Humanitarian workers from a variety of countries go back and forth to North Korea to help people who would otherwise fall through the frayed safety net of the country.
American tourists, on the other hand, are usually looking for a good time. Although Pyongyang has a casino and a bowling alley and numerous restaurants, North Korea is not a fun destination. Still, some Americans go there as part of their quest to visit every country in the world or because they can claim bragging rights for having participated in adventure tourism. I’ve also met American tourists who were genuinely curious about North Korea. Some tour companies go the extra length by incorporating briefings by experts in North Korean society.
Otto Warmbier, a third-year student at the University of Virginia, took a trip to China at the end of 2015. On an impulse, he decided to take a side trip to North Korea on a tour sponsored by Young Pioneer Tours, which offers “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” He chose the New Year’s Party tour, which promises a good amount of drinking.
Warmbier was described as an intellectually curious kid. He was double majoring in commerce and economics with a minor in global sustainability. A sports fan and fraternity member, he also liked to have a good time. From the photos and videos taken by other members of his tour group, Warmbier looks like he’s enjoying himself sightseeing and engaging in a snowball fight.
Before he could board the plane and leave North Korea with the rest of his group, however, North Korean authorities pulled him aside. They wouldn’t let him leave. He had one last phone call with one of the tour guides in which he reported having a headache so severe that he wanted to go to the hospital. Twenty days later, the North Korean authorities announced that they were detaining Warmbier for committing a “hostile act.”
Eventually they put him on trial for stealing a propaganda poster. They sentenced him to 15 years hard labor. Warmbier gave a tearful confession and then he was led out of the courtroom. Later, North Korea released a grainy video that purportedly showed Warmbier stealing the poster.
After 17 months in captivity, Warmbier was released in a vegetative state. Transported back to the United States, he died shortly thereafter. He’d suffered severe brain damage. University of Cincinnati doctors reported that they couldn’t determine the cause of the brain damage but that the young man showed no obvious signs of trauma such as fractures. Unfortunately, Warmbier’s parents did not allow an autopsy, so it will be impossible to figure out his ultimate cause of death.
Otto Warmbier’s death is a tragedy. He was obviously a gifted young man. His offense, if in fact he did commit one, should have occasioned a slap on the wrist, not a sentence of 15 years hard labor.
But North Korea is notoriously sensitive about what it considers offenses to the state and its leadership. Before I made my first trip to North Korea, I was well briefed on protocol. Don’t throw out a copy of the newspaper – if it contains a picture of Kim Jong Il, then you are inadvertently insulting the leadership. Don’t fold a North Korean banknote in half – if it features a picture of Kim Il Sung, then you are inadvertently insulting the leadership.
In other words, you have to be especially careful when you’re visiting North Korea. Drinking a lot and engaging in high-spirited camaraderie is natural for college students abroad. But it’s not such a good idea in North Korea. I did the same when I studied Russian in the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s – and I threw up in Red Square after one especially rowdy party. I shudder to think what might have happened to me if I’d been in Pyongyang instead.
We don’t know what happened to Otto Warmbier during his period of detention. It’s tempting to conclude that he was beaten, perhaps even tortured. But the North Korean authorities have been generally quite careful with American detainees. They seize Americans for what they consider serious offenses – religious proselytizing, trying to sneak into the country – not just as bargaining chips (they rarely get anything in exchange for releasing such detainees). If they arrested Warmbier for no reason other than to send a message to the United States and if they then mistreated him in custody, that would mark a significant shift in policy.
Even if North Korea has changed its policies under Kim Jong Un, it would be unwise to militarize this tragedy. “We would be morally justified in launching a military attack,” writes former diplomat Chris Hill in The New York Times. This is an odd argument, particularly coming from a former American official. After all, the United States seized hundreds of foreign nationals, imprisoned them in Guantanamo, and denied them due process. Three prisoners died in custody in 2006, possibly after torture.
Hill goes on to recommend that the United States demand a full accounting of what happened to Warmbier and pursue more sanctions rather than a military attack. Certainly an accounting is necessary. But perhaps the punitive action should come after the accounting, rather than before.
U.S.-North Korean relations are at a nadir. The Trump administration has expressed anger at Beijing for not disciplining Pyongyang. And the United States may not look favorably at South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s proposals to restart north-south economic relations.
It’s hard to know how Otto Warmbier himself might have come down on this issue. Before he was detained, he had generally positive interactions with North Koreans. As a commerce and business double major, he probably believed that economic engagement could make a difference.
I’d like to believe that the best way of honoring his legacy would be to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, work to release other foreign detainees, and encourage citizen-to-citizen exchanges with North Korea. By improving the economic and social conditions of the North Korean population, we can best ensure that nobody has to face whatever Otto Warmbier endured while he was imprisoned in the country.