Otto Warmbier, a 21 year old student at the University of Virginia, was arrested in January before leaving North Korea for attempting to stealing a political banner. Yesterday, he was officially sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
My initial reaction to this story was “How foolish can a person be to try to steal something?” North Korea might be the most oppressive sovereign nation on earth. Don’t try to steal a souvenir in a totalitarian police state.
But I also don’t think we should simply take North Korea’s word for it, or to put it past them to have made up the entire account in order to arrest in American for political purposes. It’s not like he’s innocent until proven guilty. For me, regardless of the statements or accusations that are coming out, I’m going to assume he’s guilty unless there’s actual evidence. Even if there is, clearly the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. But North Korea is ran by a regime where there is no justice, not for her own citizens, and certainly not for foreign visitors. Some of Warmbier’s remarks were clearly propaganda: “The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people. This was a very foolish aim.”
That’s a written statement that he was made to read. Trying to steal a sign to hurt the motivation and work ethic of an entire country with millions of people? That makes no sense. But that does fit with the demand for total loyalty to the Kim dynasty that is demanded within the borders of North Korea.
There are reports that he tried to steal the sign for a banner for a church. In North Korea, the practice of Christianity is forbidden.
Warmbier also said “(I) never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country.” So the U.S. government had a master plan for a 21 year old to go over and steal a sign?
The North Korean government has been hostile to American tourists in the past. I’m honestly not sure what would possess a person to want to travel there, but that’s a secondary issue. What matters is getting this young man home. I do hope and pray that the state department is able to make a deal for his release.
I hope that this can make people think twice before going there. It’s a country where we have bad relations and where we don’t even have an embassy.
I also hope that this extreme treatment can be a reminder as to the difference between our government and that of North Korea. Certainly the idea of 15 years of forced labor doesn’t fit the crime to our worldview.
The U.S. Department of State officially warns against traveling to North Korea:
The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK). This replaces the Travel Warning for North Korea of April 15, 2015, to reiterate and highlight the risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the DPRK’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.
Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries. North Korean authorities have arrested U.S. citizens who entered the DPRK legally on valid DPRK visas as well as U.S. citizens who accidentally or intentionally crossed into DPRK territory without valid visas. The Department of State has received reports of DPRK authorities detaining U.S. citizens without charges and not allowing them to depart the country. North Korea has even detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours. Do not assume that joining a group tour or using a tour guide will prevent North Korean authorities from detaining you or arresting you.
The warning continues on the state department website.
As a rule of thumb, I would say Americans shouldn’t travel to countries that don’t have American embassies. We also shouldn’t go to places that don’t care about their own people, because they certainly won’t care about foreign visitors.
I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be to be a hostage over there. In his recent statement, he at least looked healthy (although I’m not a doctor). My heart also goes out to the family. It’s such a bizarre situation, and there’s nothing they can really do. They have to wait for the government to work things out on his behalf.
God bless, Otto. I pray you’re back home soon.
UPDATE: North Korea has produced a video which they claim is footage of Warmbier stealing the sign. It’s not clear as to who the person in the video is, and it’s also possible that this footage was taken after the fact.