Wednesday, 14 June 2017

North Korean tourism is ghoulish and wrong, part 2

I've written before about why I think visiting North Korea as a tourist is wrong, the equivalent of ghoulish on-lookers oggling a deadly car-crash. One thing I didn't mention there was the possibility of becoming a hostage of the Kim's regime, held as a pawn in North Korea's diplomatic game.

The fate of Otto Warmbier should be a warning to everyone considering visiting the DPRK as a tourist that this is indeed a possibility. By all accounts Otto Warmbier did nothing really wrong - taking a poster,apparently as a memento, in an apparent act of care-free thoughtlessness than in any other country in the world would not result in any serious sanction. Instead he is now being returned to his family in a coma, explained by the North Korean regime as the result of either taking a sleeping pill or botulism he had suffered whilst serving his 15-year sentence of hard labour for “hostile acts against the state.”

The conclusion of all this is quite obvious: don't go to North Korea. The kind of thing that happened to Otto Warmbier could happen to anyone else, and once you have entered into the Kim regime's clutches you may not leave alive.

[Picture: a border guard at Sunan airport, North Korea. Via Wiki]


Ji Xiang said...

To be fair, trying to steal a government poster in North Korea is obviously a pretty silly thing to do. Anyone with some common sense wouldn't make that mistake.

If you want to go to North Korea you should be extra-careful and guarded. Not being American probably makes it safer too.

Gilman Grundy said...

To be fair, no-one expects 15 years hard labour for "stealing a poster".

To also be fair, I think you're wrong to say that "anyone with some common sense wouldn't make that mistake". Pretty much any of us could make a mistake of a similar level of "seriousness" to thinking we could take a poster as a souvenir. Since the North Koreans have internet access, that could include the "crime" of ever having said anything bad about North Korea on the internet.

To further be fair, Otto Warmbier may well not have actually done what he was accused of doing. His room-mate in North Korea seems to think he didn't do it:

To be fairer still, it is not only North Americans who have been subjected to this kind of treatment - for example a BBC journalist was recently detained for having "slandered" the North Korean nation.

Ji Xiang said...

This guy was accused of going into a staff-only area of his hotel, and taking down a propaganda poster so he could keep it as a souvenir. If this is true, it was a tremendously silly thing to do. I don't think that "anyone" would make that mistake. If I went there I know I wouldn't ever try to touch any propaganda posters. If I went to Damascus I also wouldn't try to take down any Assad posters. You never know what they might make of it. In any case what happened to him was obviously totally unwarranted and tragic.

In the article you linked, his roommate just says that he never heard Otto ever mentioning something similar, and that it seems strange to him. Even he isn't sure whether it happened or not. I kind of hope it did, otherwise the whole thing is even more absurd then it already is. If this guy Otto doesn't wake up from his coma, we'll never know.

In any case condemning a young man to 15 years of hard labour for taking down a poster is obviously insane, but then the North Korean regime has shown again and again that it will engage in such insanity and fanaticism. That's why you have to be very, very careful of your actions if you go there. On the other hand, I suspect that the North Koreans are not sophisticated enough to check what you've said about them on the internet.

justrecently said...

Things like these happen rarely, but they can happen. My guess is that the regime needed another pawn in its (indirect) negotiations with Washington, and that something went out of hand. I don't think that Pyongyang was interested in seeing heightened pressure from the U.S., and possibly from China, too.

I don't think I'd go to North Korea if I were a U.S. citizen. And mere curiosity wouldn't take me there, either. But there seem to have been sports activities in the past, as far as I can remember, with international participation. Business could be another reason to go there.

Basically, I believe, as long as I travel to China, there isn't much reason why I should stay away from North Korea.

Gilman Grundy said...

Some updates:

- Otto Warmbier died today.

- He had suffered a "severe neurological injury" that had left him essentially unresponsive.

- John McCain accused the North Koreans of torturing him.

I really don't see why anyone should believe the North Korean version of things on this. There really is no reason to take his confession seriously, particularly as it included an admission of working for the CIA. It's just as possible that they inflicted this injury themselves to leave Warmbier a useful pawn who would not talk about what happened to him. This is the same regime that denied developing nuclear weapons for years until it started to test them, and which still denies its undeniable responsibility for sinking the Cheonan.

I'd say the difference between China and North Korea, at least as far as tourism goes, is obvious: China won't use you as a hostage.

Gilman Grundy said...

PS - since Rupert Wingfield Hayes was detained on the basis of an article that was published on the BBC website, I'd say the idea that the North Koreans won't check what someone has written on the internet doesn't hold water.

Ji Xiang said...

Well yes, but you said "ever having said anything bad about North Korea on the internet", so it sounded like you were talking about comments left on Facebook or private blogs. I don't think the North Koreans are sophisticated enough to check those.

If you are a journalist with a famous media outlet like the BBC, that's obviously another matter. Especially if you produce articles about North Korea while you are in the country, you can assume they will read them.

justrecently said...


I'd say the difference between China and North Korea, at least as far as tourism goes, is obvious: China won't use you as a hostage.

To me, that's only a marginal difference. When you are "ethnically Chinese", and when you have shown support for human rights in China - in whatever way -, you may easily be arrested. You may even be "disappeared" from Hong Kong.

The way North Korea is presented as a particularly arbitrary trap to foreigners doesn't convince me. In my view, it also does a disservice to human rights.

(P.S. Blogspot'S I'm-not-a-robot feature is a nusiance.)

@Ji Xiang

The extent to which totalitarian (and more open) systems operate huge surveillance keeps surprising people. Most West (and East) Germans were surprised by the extent of "state security" surveillance, and Snowden's NSA revelations have been enlightening, too. I think North Korea's general poverty doesn't keep the state from huge "internal securty" operations. Recent years have only increased the regime's dependence on spying on its people.

Ji Xiang said...

I don't doubt the regime spies on its own people. I am sure its surveillance is extremely high. I just don't think that they would have the means to check what I have written about North Korea on Facebook or on my own blog if I went there. I just don't think they have people with the right kind of understanding of social media and the outside world. I might be wrong of course.

About the general issue, I suppose that even the North Korean government will choose an American who has done something slightly wrong to arrest and use as a bargaining chip, rather than just literally take any American visitor at random. I think that one can expect conditions in Chinese prisons to be better than in North Korean ones, although even in North Korea incarcerated foreigners can apparently expect better treatment than locals. Still, it is obviously frightening to think that you could fall into the black hole that is North Korea, and what happened to this American young man shows what the worst risks are.

It is true though that all East Asian dictatorships, including even North Korea, seem to generally treat foreign prisoners better than Arab dictatorships have done. In Iraq under Saddam Hussein, British reporter Farzad Bazoft was hung for spying on trumped-up charges. Foreigners have been tortured in a lot of Arab countries. The concept of not reserving foreigners your worst treatment in order to save face obviously does not exist there.

justrecently said...

I suppose that even the North Korean government will choose an American who has done something slightly wrong to arrest and use as a bargaining chip, rather than just literally take any American visitor at random

It depends on the message they want to send. As far as I can tell, the verdict against Warmbier meant nothing. A kangaroo court is no court, and a justice system like North Korea's - or China's, for that matter -, is a travesty of justice.

One can see things differently, for sure, but to me, under circumstances like these, it's a matter of principle to consider Warmbier 100 percent innocent.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Justrecently -

" to me, under circumstances like these, it's a matter of principle to consider Warmbier 100 percent innocent."

I agree entirely with this point. Where the guilt or innocence did not matter in the court's verdict about someone's alleged crime, and where the crime they were accused of has no connection to the sentence they received, and where the sentence was palpably unjust, it is right to consider them innocent.

It was for this reason that I found a lot of the rhetoric directed at Warmbier after he was detained somewhat tasteless and deluded. Read this piece for example, which is now somewhat infamous - . You see a lot of responses from people saying that, at some level, Warmbier brought this situation on himself. Other than by visiting North Korea (and no-one should expect to be effectively kidnapped when visiting a country) he did no such thing.

JR said...

The problem with writers like La Sha seems to be that they are so full of their own issues that everything else must either be neglected, or needs to be stuffed into their worldview, after cutting it to the size deemed appropriate.

I think articles like hers work in the attention economy, because they offend the mainstream narrative about what North Korea "is" - it angers many, and encourages some. But they can only do injustice to the facts, because facts don't matter in that kind of universe anyway. Only hurt feelings do.

Ji Xiang said...

That article by La Sha is quite sickening, as well as laughable. The fear she feels every day as a black woman in America is as bad as the fear Warmbier felt after being imprisoned in North Korea?

She clearly needs to get out there and see the world a second.

justrecently said...

She clearly needs to get out there and see the world a second.

Be careful what you wish for!

justrecently said...

It has taken North Korea several days before they issued statements concerning Otto Warmbier's death - until today. They probably had to finish calculations first, about how provocative they should get in their defense, before the foreign ministry spokesman made a statement.

FOARP said...

@JR - That's pretty insane. Interesting how some of the nuttier stuff wasn't in the Chinese version ("someone we returned 21 years ago also died soon after we returned them but you didn't complain about that, did you?").

justrecently said...

"someone we returned 21 years ago also died soon after we returned them but you didn't complain about that, did you?"

I think the mention of Hunziker was meant to be offensive - it's a carefully calibrated piece of "diplomacy" (or its replacement). They are referring to drug abuse in America, crime, etc. - narratives at least as old as the cold war. The more it changes, the more it remains the same.

I think it is also interesting that they "criticize" the Obama administration, rather than the incumbent. This suggests that have weighed the options and their costs before publishing their statement. If it comes across as believable or not is probably not that important. "Discourse power" is, if terms from Chinese politics are something to by in North Korea.