Tuesday, June 20, 2017

the sad case of Otto Warmbier

You may recall Otto Warmbier, a student who, in 2016, went to North Korea and was accused by the North Korean government of trying to steal a propaganda poster. I've seen some folks take the North Korean accusations at face value, chiding Warmbier for acting out while in such a hostile country. North Korea being North Korea, I don't think we'll ever know the truth as to why Warmbier had been detained. At a guess, his detention probably had nothing to do with what he was accused of, but the end result was that Warmbier was sentenced to fifteen years' hard labor. After serving only one-and-a-half years of his sentence, Warmbier was unceremoniously returned to the United States in a coma, having suffered what US medical experts termed "severe neurological damage." North Korea claimed the coma was the result of a combination of botulism and sleeping pills, but US doctors surmised otherwise.

And now, Otto Warmbier is dead. Someone named Stacy Berlin (@LIAgent99) tweeted the following tasteless remark:

Otto Warmbier was in a coma in North Korea and was alive. He transfers to a US hospital and dies. Is this an indictment of our health system?

I think that gets the prize for Stupidest Remark of the Day.

Warmbier's death puts me in mind of a line from one of Stephen R. Donaldson's fantasy novels. I think it occurs in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, when Covenant's wife Joan, who divorced and abandoned Covenant when he discovered he had leprosy, is driven insane by the malevolent, diabolical force that Covenant had to fight during the First Chronicles. Covenant offers Dr. Linden Avery—who is initially there to treat Covenant but who begins to take an interest in Joan—the following depressing line, quite possibly one of the most desolate lines of literature I've ever read:

How do you hurt a man who's lost everything? Give him back something broken.

This is how Otto Warmbier's parents must feel about now. It wasn't enough that their son got involved in the nightmare of North Korean "jurisprudence": their son was sent back to the States, battered and broken, and now he's dead.

My take on this is similar to my take on the Korean Christians who heedlessly went to Afghanistan in 2007 to preach the gospel, got captured, and ended up with two of their number executed: the captors were at fault, but the victims had a choice not to be victims. When the remaining Christian hostages returned safely after the ROK government promised to withdraw its troops and to (allegedly) pay a $20 million bribe, public sentiment in Korea was decidedly against the returnees, and perhaps with good reason: you have to be all kinds of foolish to walk so blithely into the lion's den. With North Korea, there's no obvious rhyme or reason to how and why the DPRK plucks certain foreign tourists out of the line for trial and torture. Maybe the government needs a hostage as leverage in negotiations. Maybe the government needs to amp up its propaganda machine. Who knows? Whatever the reality, it should be obvious that going into Afghanistan as a missionary and going to North Korea as a tourist are foolish, dangerous things to do. Time and again, this folly is revealed as tourists get shanghaied or even shot. I know some folks who've been to North Korea and back, and personally, I wonder if they realize how lucky they are to have returned. They might say that it takes a certain savvy or a certain level of common sense to survive the experience; I say they're oblivious to (or actively ignoring and/or dismissing) the counterfactuals—the would-haves and could-haves and might-haves.

There's also the matter of why on Earth you'd want to contribute money to a regime like North Korea's. On some level, a tourist to the DPRK has to realize he or she is selling part of his or her soul just for the experience of standing on North Korean soil. Where does that money go, after all? Certainly not to the oppressed, starving, and dying citizens of the DPRK: it goes to the military and to the party cadres in Pyongyang. Read Andrew Natsios's The Great North Korean Famine for an inside look at how goods are distributed—or rather, not distributed—among North Korean citizens. Tourist dollars are going nowhere near the people who need them, and one would be naive to think otherwise.

Warmbier should have known all this before embarking on his ill-fated trip to North Korea, so to be frank, I don't have too much sympathy for Warmbier himself. I do, however, have an ocean of sympathy for Warmbier's parents, who now know what it means to lose a child—something no parent should ever have to experience.

This week is going to be Autopsy Week, I suspect. Carrie Fisher's autopsy recently made the news, and it was discovered that a combination of cocaine, heroin, and ecstasy may have been at the root of her cardiac arrest. What will we discover when Otto Warmbier is autopsied? Nothing surprising, I'll bet. Neurological damage will probably be the result of cranial trauma plus whatever other forms of physical and psychological abuse he suffered during his eighteen months in hell. In the meantime, I grieve more for Warmbier's parents than I do for the man himself. Warmbier had every chance not to stick his foot into the bear trap, but he elected to do so, anyway.

ADDENDUM: in our "Too Little, Too Late" file, we have this USA Today article: "Tour Group Says No More Americans to North Korea After Warmbier's Death."


Charles said...

They have CCTV footage of Warmbier removing the poster from a hallway in his hotel. I'm not saying that the North Korean response was in any way proportional or sane, but it's not like they arrested him completely at random.

That being said, if I were punished so severely for every stupid thing I did as a university student, I would have been dead a long time ago.

Kevin Kim said...

I haven't seen the footage, but I've seen comments saying the video isn't particularly clear. I need to see the video for myself if it's available to the public.

...Okay, I've seen the video on YouTube. Really, really unclear. Did he do it? Maybe; maybe not. I really can't say.

TheBigHenry said...

"There's also the matter of why on Earth you'd want to contribute money to a regime like North Korea's."

Ask me how much money the NK regime would have to pay me to visit their hell hole -- Nope, not even close.

There is stupid shit college students do. And then there is feloniously-stupid shit.

I do feel the parents' pain. Parenting is not all its cracked up to be. And then you die.