The Tragedy of Otto Warmbier: Time for a US Travel Ban?


ottowarmbierThis is a local re-post for an essay I just wrote for the Lowy Institute this month (here).

I feel nothing but anguish for this young man and his family. Our prayers go out to them. Given that North Korea almost certainly gave him a hack doctor – because all the good ones are kept for elites – who grossly misdiagnosed him, it is no exaggeration to say that Pyongyang effectively murdered this poor man.

The problem is what to do, and the options are all depressingly familiar. Cable news idiots are a talking about force again, but that’s a terrible idea for reasons well known by now. The big question is whether there should be a travel ban on US citizens going to North Korea. This idea gets raised every time there is a hostage-taking. Given that Warmbier was killed though, it is getting a lot more play this time. For myself, I would not counsel Americans to go now. I went in 2012 when it seemed reasonably safe. Kim Jong Un was new to power, and his habit of snatching Americans had not yet bloomed. But now it seems like this is a state policy almost. Don’t go to North Korea now. It is too risky.

The full essay follows the jump:

Earlier this month, an American tourist to North Korea, Otto Warmbier, died of injuries suffered in detention in that country. It is not yet clear from what cause he died. But it appears the North Koreans medically mistreated him in such a way that he suffered major brain damage. My guess is that Warmbier died from inept medical treatment by a hack doctor. High quality medical services are a rationed amenity for elites only in North Korea. Warmbier was likely treated an incompetent who misdiagnosed him – hence the specious claims that he contracted botulism – leading to his coma. Fearful that he would actually die in North Korean custody, Pyongyang then returned him as a ‘humanitarian’ gesture shortly before he did pass away. Given that he returned in a near vegetative state and died shortly thereafter, it is no exaggeration to say that North Korea effectively murdered this young man.

This high-profile death raises many of the same questions over North Korea and its behavior which have bedeviled analysts for decades. It is not clear if the Warmbier tragedy actually opens up new or rarely-considered avenues of action against North Korea. Cable news talk-shows are once again flirting with military options, but this remains unlikely for the same reasons it has always been a poor choice. A more likely outcome is an increase in US bilateral sanctions yet again, and an American travel ban to North Korea.

North Korea and Global Norms

Warmbier’s killing illustrates once again that North Korea routinely operates outside most rules, formal or otherwise, in the modern international system. Warmbier’s case, while tragic, is not that unique in the history of North Korea simply doing whatever it wants, consequences and expectations be damned.

North Korea runs a tourist trade. I was on a trip similar to Warmbier’s in 2012. Most tourists in most places likely assume some basic level of protection in exchange for their willingness to visit and put money into the local economy. One expects, by treaty, to be arrested on reasonable charges, get access to one’s diplomatic representation, be treated reasonably humanely if imprisoned, and so on. It should surprise no one that none of that applies in North Korea. Warmbier vandalized a poster, for which he was preposterously accused of trying to bring down the state and sentenced to an astonishing fifteen years hard labor. He never had access to the Swedish embassy, which acts as the ‘protective power’ for US interests in North Korea. He then received such appalling ‘medical care’ that he died of it. This is not ‘tourism’ as understood in the rest of the world.

North Korea has snatched visitors like this in the past. Usually they are released in reasonable health after some sort of backroom deal (read: shake-down). Warmbier’s case is getting more play than most, because he is an American and actually died from his detention. But North Korea has a long history of such behavior:

Among other ‘highlights,’ it hacked to death two US soldiers in the demilitarized zone in 1976. It sank without warning a South Korean destroyer in 2010, killing forty-six. It has a long history of drug smuggling, overseas assassination, and other gangsterish behavior. This spring, it murdered a regime opponent with a weapon of mass destruction in an airport.

I have long thought this record is a great burden for doves who support engagement. North Korea’s ongoing, violent history of ignoring even the most basic global rules – such as its de facto hostage-taking of Malaysians in North Korea this spring despite their legal presence in-country – makes Pyongyang almost impossible to trust.

The North Korean Tourism Trade

While Warmbier’s passing is a tragedy and his punishment grossly disproportionate to his ‘crime,’ it must also be said that tourism agencies which operate into North Korea are quite explicit in warning tourists not to engage in risky behavior. I went through Koryo Tours, which, to their great credit, was very clear about what not to do: don’t leave behind or even bring in religious materials (‘frontier mission’ evangelicals are regular issue), don’t insult or criticize the leadership to one’s minders, don’t drink too much, don’t flirt, don’t vandalize, don’t wander off, and so on. All of this is common sense for visiting a country as repressive as North Korea. A major question in the wake of Warmbier’s death is whether the company he went through – Young Pioneer Tours – actually gave Warmbier’s tour group a proper security brief.

If Young Pioneers did not, they carry some of the responsibility. And indeed, so many Americans have had trouble in North Korea since Kim Jong Un took over in December 2011, that Young Pioneers will no longer bring Americans in. The US State Department is also quite explicit in warning Americans not to travel to North Korea. When I travelled there, I had read these warnings and was cognizant of the risk. Indeed, I only told a few family members that I was going, because I anticipated that many professional friends and colleagues would try to dissuade, even though I wanted very much to go for the professional exposure. But clearly I was aware that this was not a place to act foolishly, and my sense was that others in my tour section felt the same. In short, Warmbier should have known what he was getting into. In my experience, there was a lot of warning that I would be on my own if anything happened. But when I went, tourism was still generally considered safe.

The question now is whether North Korea is too dangerous for US tourists, as Young Pioneers has suggested. The US State Department has not banned US citizens from travelling to North Korea. But given Warmbier’s death, and given that he was simply a young tourist who drank too much – rather than a oppositional journalist or a missionary – a US ban might be necessary now. For myself, I would no longer encourage an American to go. When I went, it was reasonable safe. Now it strikes me as just too dangerous.

There are still No Good Options to Respond

Given Warmbier’s obvious innocence – his youth, his deeply disturbing post-arrest press conference, his apolitical nature – his death has had a greater impact than most North Korean hostage and abductee stories. The news coverage for this kidnapping is greater than any I can remember since the imprisonment of Euna Lee and Laura Ling in 2009. But other than a travel ban, the Trump administration’s choice are still frustrating and frustratingly familiar. If there were any good options to bring North Korea to heel, they long ago would have been tried. We have had this conversation so many times before. Military action over the death of one individual would be seen as grossly disproportional, while tightening sanctions, whose impact on the elites responsible for Warmbier’s death would be minimal, feels like (and is) more of the same. We remain locked into the same set of terrible choices with no obvious way to make North Korea pay for Warmbier’s death much less slow its nuclear missilization.

2 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Otto Warmbier: Time for a US Travel Ban?

  1. Pingback: Let’s be Careful about Calling the North Korean ICBM a ‘Game Changer’ | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: The North Korea Travel Ban is Probably a Good Idea at this point | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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