The list of American citizens who suffered at the hands of the North Korean regime has just become a bit longer. On March 16, 2016, the Supreme Court of North Korea sentenced a U.S. student to 15 years in a labor camp for “committing an act of hostility against the state’s unity.”
The arrested person, an American student from the University of Virginia, the 21-year-old Otto Frederick Warmbier, studied economics and ranked among the best 7% of students by academic performance. He had spent the last year in classrooms of the London School of Economics. His profile in social media says that he is a director of an “alternative investment fund.” Over the last several years, he visited Cuba, Ireland, and Israel, and came to the DPRK with a tourist visa on December 29 from Beijing for a New Year’s tour; at the end of the tour he was detained, when already being at the airport, on January 22, 2016.
Circumstances of his detention are unclear. By one version, he was found missing only upon arrival; the other states that before the flight he complained of acute headache and demanded to be sent to hospital; the third version claimed he said something wrong to an airport guard and was dragged away; the information on the inclination of his group towards night vodka-fueled bull sessions appeared in the British press.
Nevertheless, on February 29 Warmbier arranged a press conference where he spoke on the reasons for his detention and expressed his hope that the DPRK government would show their forgiveness to him and that he could reunite with his family.
Answering the question of a TASS correspondent on the reason for his arrest, Warmbier answered than on the night of January 1 he “sneaked into a utility room of the hotel and tore off the wall a Korean political poster hanging there.” In fact, it was a big pin-up motto.
With that, if Otto Frederick is to be believed, he did it on the instruction from “Peace United Methodist Church” of the USA, or, to say more exactly, from his best friend’s mother who serves there as a deaconess. The said dame allegedly told him that if he could take away and bring home an important political motto from North Korea, it could be hung at her church as a kind of trophy. She added that by “removing the motto we should bring scandal upon the cohesion of the North Korean people and show them how the West insults their country.” For his action, the youth was promised a second hand car worth $10,000 and in case of problems, $200,000 to his family to pay for the education for his younger brother and sister. As his family was suffering from severe financial difficulties, he agreed after some reflection. He was also encouraged to do so by a charitable organization “Society Z” operating at the University of Virginia (in fact, a secret society so typical for American universities) and all but the CIA.
By way of training, on December 23, 2015 Warmbier stole some road signs and hid them beneath his bed in the rented flat. On December 30, 2015 he asked the guide accompanying him where the main mottos are at the hotel and learned they were located in utility areas. About two o’clock in the morning he managed to get into the utility room and whipped away the motto, but it turned out to be much larger and heavier than he had expected; realizing he could not carry it to his room, Otto Frederick returned defeated.
Answering the question on his detention conditions the American thanked the Korean authorities for “the humane treatment they have shown.” “They treat me in the most humane way: I live in a hotel-class boarding home, no tortures or pressure, three high-class meals a day, complete medical examination, a one-hour walk every day, sauna and hairdresser once a week. I sleep for more than 8 hours,” he informed the audience, and then confessed, with tears in his eyes, that he “realized the gravity of the offence he committed,” offered his apologies to the government and people of the DPRK, and called on his compatriots not to trust the U.S. administration and the church which are using “dirty ways to blur DPRK’s image in the international stage.”
Obviously, the author has got the feeling that in fact there was no provocation preplanned by the cunning rectoress but sooner a rakish ambition to bring something rare ad special from North Korea. Then, when he realized he should be saying something in a situation when he was caught red-handed, Otto Frederick gave out an ideologically correct version that turned him onto an almost innocent victim of intelligence agencies on a suicide mission rather than an ordinary vandal.
Still, the author fails to understand why would anyone steal a poster from the utility room if, with a certain effort and at least a minimal contact established with the guides, one could have obtained such thing (even if in a smaller size) as a souvenir quite easily. Anyway, some Russian tourists visiting North Korea do not usually have problems in that.
It is evident that fifteen years of labor camps for a torn-off poster sounds absurd by European standards, though certain things seen as barbarity in one region may be recognized as an adequate punishment in some other. One may remember that in countries like Singapore an “occasionally forgotten” packet of marijuana in one’s pocket is a good reason for a similar jail term or a death sentence for a Western tourist. A similar fate would be there for Otto Frederick should he try to tear off, for souvenirs, a poster depicting the king when in Thailand; local laws dealing with contempt of the King are far more strict than North Korean. On the other hand, even in the United States one could get a similar sentence for a frivolous picture if some piety zealot found it look like child porn. The only difference being that in some cases the reaction to such sentence is “What a terrible thing!” and in other cases, “Well, such are their national and cultural peculiarities. It is unpleasant but there are laws to be observed.”
After all, experience shows that people who get such sentences rarely serve them till the end. As an example, one may think about previous cases of American citizens to be sentenced to prison terms and set free in 2015. The closest incident is that of Matthew Miller, who was arrested on April 10, 2014 after he had torn to pieces his entrance visa. The investigation that followed revealed that he had provoked his own detention to “get into prison, learn the situation with human rights and become world-famous.” On September 14 Miller was sentenced to six years of compulsory labour but set free on November 11.
In the end, we should remember that the conditions in which such prisoners of conscience are kept are very different from the usual lot of North Korean prisoners: a prisoner set free will immediately turn into an important witness whose evidence will spread all over the world and Pyongyang is not going to let the enemy have any damaging evidence. Moreover, if anything goes wrong with a U.S. citizen in a North Korean prison, then “a new nuclear bomb test will produce less effect on American public opinion than such death,” as one of the author’s respondents joked.
So let us not dramatize the situation and hope that the scampish student will recognize his mistakes, while his sentence will serve as an example for others to never take their tours to the DPRK as an exotic safari or a kind of dangerous adventure.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research associate at the Center for Korean Studies, the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”