The scariest thing about the death of Otto Warmbier is that the Kim regime doesn’t feel even an ounce of remorse.
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
Parents with small children often have strange little rules that reflect the crushing anxiety of love. Some couples, for example, refuse to take the same flight, lest they both perish, leaving their children as orphans. In our house, we have just one such rule, as promulgated by Mrs. Lewis: NO, JEFFREY, YOU ARE NOT GOING TO NORTH KOREA.
As we have learned from the sad tale of Otto Warmbier, who tragically died yesterday, Americans do travel to North Korea. There are more foreigners in North Korea than you think, and there remain three Americans still in custody of North Korea. To be fair, the vast majority return safely, while the few who are detained usually end up being ransomed off. But the possibility of tragedy is always very real, lurking just offstage.
Poor Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea on an organized tourist trip. Other Americans travel for work, including journalists and academics participating in Track II diplomatic meetings. Two of the Americans currently detained actually lived in Pyongyong; they worked briefly as instructors at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a privately funded university in North Korea.
Many of those detained have been accused of missionary-related activities. Communist governments in China and North Korea take a dim view of Christian missionaries, for historical reasons, so leaving a Bible in a nightclub bathroom during a trip to North Korea — as Jeffrey Fowle admits to having done — is a good way to run afoul of the authorities. But North Koreans are also eager to hold people that they can ransom. Laura Ling and Eunha Lee were reporters working along the border between China and North Korea, documenting things the North Korean government didn’t like, when North Korean soldiers allegedly crossed to the Chinese side of the border to detain them. When North Korea released them following a visit by former President Bill Clinton, it used the footage as the ending for a massive propaganda film in which Clinton is portrayed as having come to Pyongyang to pay tribute to the late Kim Jong Il.
The North Koreans claim Ling and Lee were on the North Korean side of the border, and the subsequent propaganda was a necessary byproduct of enforcing the law against them. But it’s not like Pyongyang is above outright kidnapping people for entertainment. Kim Jong Il — a noted film buff — had his agents abduct a famous South Korean actress in 1978, using her as bait to entrap her ex-husband, himself a famous director, six months later. The two were reunited five years later and forced to make half a dozen films before they escaped to the U.S. Embassy on a trip to Vienna in 1986.
You don’t have to be famous to be kidnapped by North Korea. During the 1970s and 1980s, North Korea kidnapped at least 17 Japanese citizens from Japan and took them back to North Korea. These were people guilty of nothing more than taking a moonlit stroll on the beach before happening upon North Korean agents. North Korea also abducted a number of women from around the world to serve as spouses for American serviceman who had deserted and defected. (The North Korean authorities take a dimmer view of interracial marriage among Westerners and Koreans than they do kidnapping.) One young woman, a Romanian named Doina Bumbea, went missing in Rome in 1978. She ultimately turned up in Pyongyang, having been abducted and married off to one of those servicemen. Her two sons appear in North Korean propaganda.
There is a tendency to dismiss these kidnappings as events as happened a long time ago. But that does not mean they have stopped. For many years, Japanese authorities were skeptical of claims that disappeared persons had been taken to North Korea. People go missing all the time, something Pyongyang can count on to obscure an abduction here or there. Consider the case of David Sneddon, an American student who disappeared in China in 2004. Although Chinese authorities insist Sneddon died in a ravine, there is no body to prove that and some distressing indications that he had come across North Korean agents prior to his disappearance. The outlandish idea that Sneddon was kidnapped — and remains alive in Pyongyang — doesn’t seem so outlandish given the other cases of kidnapping that are now well-documented.
In all these cases there is a common thread, no matter whether the person did something wrong or was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time: The North Koreans felt like each of these human beings could be useful to them. And so, the North Koreans took them — took them like they were objects, not people with futures ahead of them, families that loved them and a dignity deserving respect.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant, in attempting to craft a series of ethical precepts by which we might live, suggested that each of us should “act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.” This is one test that the North Korean government fails completely. For North Korea, every person is merely a means toward whatever end the state seeks at that moment. Sometimes that end is discouraging missionary activity in North Korea or eliciting a high-level visit from a foreign dignitary. But as often as not, the end has been shockingly petty: to provide a wife to a foreign defector, to acquire a native speaker of English, or simply to make a good movie.
The North Koreans didn’t hate Otto Warmbier, which makes it all the worse. They had no feelings at all for him as a person. He was just an object to them, to be held for a price and then shipped home at a steep discount when it was clear he might die and lose whatever remaining value he held to them.
This why you shouldn’t go to North Korea, even if the odds suggest it is safer than a lot of other dumb things you might do. Because at the end of the day, the North Korean government doesn’t believe in human dignity, only in itself. You are willingly putting yourself in the hands of a state that would gladly hold you if, for example, if it thought your release might make a nice ending to its next feature film. And if you happen to resist, it is happy to leave you for dead and grab someone else. The fact that you came home safely doesn’t mean that the trip was safe, merely that the North Koreans didn’t think they needed you at that moment.
So, listen to Mrs. Lewis. DON’T GO TO NORTH KOREA.
Photo credit: Xinhua/Lu Rui via Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration