North Korean Cruelty and Personal Responsibility (Otto Warmbier Reaction)

Being such a heavy topic, this might seem like an odd choice to discuss as my first blog entry here, but it’s one of the biggest news stories right now, and I’ve already spent half the day reading all of my friends’ thoughts about it on social media.

Today it was reported that 22-year-old UVA student Otto Warmbier passed away from injuries sustained during his time in prison in North Korea. In a quick summary, Warmbier was arrested in January 2016 during a visit to Pyongyang for the theft of a propaganda banner from the hotel in which he was staying with a tour group. At trial, Warmbier was found guilty due to fingerprint evidence, CCTV footage, witness testimony, and a confession. The confession was highly suspect, and sounded like it was written by a DPRK official and forced upon Warmbier, as it contained an outlandish backstory, and defamed the US in grammatically unnatural wording. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but after only a month sustained some kind of brain injury and was in a coma for over a year. In June 2017 it was negotiated for him to return to the US, but it was not known to American officials or Warmbier’s family until just before his release that he was in such poor health. Despite his doctors’ best efforts, Warmbier died only one week later, on June 19th.

And that brings us to today.

Let me first say that I have nothing but sympathy for Otto Warmbier’s family and friends, and sorrow for the death of Otto himself, as he was killed young and unjustly. I say “killed” although the root of the trauma that took his life is technically unknown. It is possible, sure, that he contracted an infection, or had a natural stroke, or any other uncontrollable reason. It’s possible, but not probable. I fully believe that Mr. Warmbier’s injury and death were caused by the torture and brutalization he almost certainly received from DPRK officials while in the labor camp. If the North Korean government purposefully starves and controls it’s own people, one can only imagine the savagery that goes on in prisons and labor camps there, especially for foreigners.

With all of that in mind, however, I have to say that Mr. Warmbier’s death was entirely avoidable. And I’m not referring to the obvious that the DPRK officials could have simply NOT beaten him, or imprisoned him at all. Actually, Warmbier himself could have prevented this whole situation at two different points. First, he could have NOT gone to North Korea at all. Second, once there, he could have followed all the rules closely, and safely left with the rest of his tour group.

“That’s victim blaming!!” Well, not really, it’s criminal blaming. Although stealing something as small as a poster is a very minor offense in the US, it is not so in the DPRK. It is not really up for debate if Warmbier did in fact steal the banner. As previously mentioned, there was CCTV footage, witness testimony, and fingerprint evidence to go along with his *likely coerced* confession. Personally, of course, I cannot verify the fingerprint evidence, and having watched the CCTV footage that was released, it is almost impossible to tell if it is Warmbier or not. In an American courtroom, the tape would probably be inadmissible since it is too difficult to make a positive i.d.

So assuming that the footage and fingerprints are legitimate, and Warmbier did in fact steal the banner, then in all honesty, he brought this fate upon himself. Regardless of America’s collective feelings about the injustice of the situation, Warmbier and everyone else on the tour knew going into it how serious the laws were, and were definitely briefed at length before the journey began about what to do and not to do. It would have come as no surprise that THEFT was a no-go in North Korea, since it is a no-go literally everywhere else in the world.

According to the department of state website, at least 16 other Americans have been detained in the last 10 years in North Korea for crimes against the state, for all kinds of things, like taking unauthorized photographs, shopping in unauthorized stores, speaking to the local people without authorization, exchanging currency with an unauthorized vender… you get the idea. Doing literally ANYTHING without specific government authorization will get you arrested and probably killed. There is absolutely zero wiggle-room as a foreign visitor. You are meant to walk in a strait line, keep your hands at your sides, and just admire the sites as you traverse the authorized path with the authorized tour guide. There is simply no way that a person going on a tour of the DPRK wouldn’t know this. Perhaps it came as a surprise to the very first offender. But after that, everyone would have been warned repeatedly about the dangers of stepping out of line.

Although I don’t personally believe that a person should be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a poster, it was the result of an actual government trial, and on their soil, the North Korean government is able to do so.

“That’s insane! It has to be a crime against humanity, or a war crime, or something like that. It must go against some kind of treaty or UN law.” Well sure, it goes against all international law and basic human logic, but so does everything in North Korea. They are a rogue state with no regard for human rights or international code of conduct. They are not concerned about the UN, or the US, or treaties or precedent or diplomatic negotiations. North Korea exists completely outside of normal human life, and apart from dubious trade with China, basically has no diplomatic interaction with the rest of the world. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they would issue such a harsh punishment for such a minimal offense, and have no fear of repercussions.

“Something still has to be done. America can’t just sit back and do nothing when another country kills one of its citizens.” Well, yes actually they can. Partially on the technicality that Mr. Warmbier didn’t die in North Korea, but on American soil, and partially because they have no jurisdiction or rights in the DPRK. We do not get to make and enforce the rules in other nations, even farcical dictatorships like that one. If an American citizen travels to any nation and commits a crime, they have no special rights as a foreigner, and will be punished for their crime like anyone else. That’s why Peter Fay was caned in Singapore in 1994 for vandalism, something that would never happen in the US. A Swiss nation who served 4 YEARS in prison in the UAE for drug charges, after poppy seeds from a bread roll were found on his person. To any foreigner with half a brain, that sounds insane, but it’s the law in the UAE and that Swiss traveler had to pay the price.

Even if the American government put that logic aside and decided to retaliate against North Korea, what would they do? That’s not retorical, leave a comment below, literally what do you think they should do? I asked this to a facebook friend earlier today who suggested that the US could not simply stand by and let this happen. They needed to DO SOMETHING. Anything! Just react, punish them! That seemed to be the general consensus as I read through a dozen or so reactions from friends on social media. Nobody knew what they wanted to be done, but they wanted it done immediately.

Well, the way I see it there are three things the American government could do.

  1. They could take a diplomatic approach. Bring it to the UN or some humanitarian organization. They could issue a formal statement of some kind, they could cry and complain on paper in any which way they wanted. But it wouldn’t make a difference. As already mentioned, North Korea has no regard for diplomacy and would brush off any effort like that, or, more likely, turn it into anti-American propaganda. It would just turn into a North Korean news broadcast about how disrespectful the US is, and how Americans think they’re above the law and can just come over here and commit crimes against the state without penalty. So, let’s say that diplomacy doesn’t work when you’re dealing with lunatics. That’s kind of like trying to give a donkey a stern talking-to after they’ve just kicked somebody. You know what they’re going to do in like, 5 minutes? Kick somebody else, and maybe you too out of spite. Furthermore,
  2. The US could take a more forceful approach. But any act of physical force would almost certainly result in absolute war. North Korea has always been one inch away from fighting the first person they see. Like they guy who provokes everyone he sees and says “swing first,” just waiting for somebody to actually do it so he can blow up on them. Now, I have total confidence that the American military could wipe out the capital city in a couple hours, and the whole country in probably a day and a half, but that’s not cool. In any case, swinging first is a bad idea.
  3. They could take the middle ground of issuing a written/verbal warning ABOUT taking force. That is, the president makes a statement that one more wrong move and the US will have to take action. From there, I’m not sure how North Korea would react. Probably with one of the two other reactions above, where they either brush it off as meaningless, or take it as the first punch and lash out anyway.

So, as far as I can see, there is no GOOD way for the US government to respond, there’s not even a “lesser of two evils” choice, they’re seriously all horrible. I  heard the suggestion today of responding by basically doing the same thing as North Korea did, and arresting one of their people on trumped-up charges to make a point. Of course, the only North Koreans who leave the country are high-ranking government officials, so it would really be a different situation than a college student, and we would have to search high and low for a crime to charge the guy with, or make something up all together. No offense to the person who came up with that idea, but it’s literally that worst thing I’ve ever heard. I can’t think of a pettier or more childish response, and there’s a 0% chance that it would have a positive impact. The DPRK government would either just go to war out of anger, or just disown the official being held, and pretend they didn’t know him. Don’t believe me? Remember earlier this year when Kim Jong Un’s own half-brother was murdered abroad and North Korea initially denied he was even theirs? Then it was discovered that of course he was North Korean, and that North Korea probably was behind the whole thing, and they denied that too? Yeah, I think it would go something like that.

I cannot think of a possible reaction that the American government could take that would end in either embarrassment or mass murder. I can, however, think fo a pretty easy way to stop this from every happening again.


There is already a severe travel warning issued by the state department about Americans entering North Korea. Um, they say you SHOULDN’T DO IT EVER. And that has basically been the stance of the US for as long as the Korean peninsula has been north-and-south. That would suggest to me that anyone who still choses to travel to North Korea is an absolute fool. There it is, no beating around the bush, if you have like 1% awareness of what North Korea does to its own people and to others, you know not to go there for any reason. And yet, people do it every year. Not only do people go there, but they go SUPER OUT OF THEIR WAY to get there. It’s not our neighbor, it’s not like a spur-of-the-moment trip. You have to find the official tour and register, apply for a visa, fly to South Korea, get on a bus, go through super intense border protection, etc. It’s a very deliberate choice, and a very foolish choice. Imagine knowing how dangerous sharks are, and then spending a year and thousands of dollars to go swim with the sharks somewhere anyway, then ignoring the guide’s instructions about staying in the cage, and like sticking your arm out and getting bitten. Would that come as a surprise to anyone? No, because everybody knows what sharks are and knows you should stick your arm out in front of them, because that’s insane, and they’re going to bite you. Would you say that that diver had it coming, then? I would.

TLDR; It’s sad that Otto Warmbier died, but not surprising, and I think the best reaction for the US to take is to issue a formal travel ban on it’s citizens from entering North Korea.




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