Otto Warmbier died. He was 22 years old. During his short life, he had a number of rewarding travel experiences, like going to England to attend the London School of Economics, and visiting Israel to get in touch with his Jewish roots. But, he did not return from his last trip.
Toward the end of 2015, he was traveling in China and saw a promotional advertisement for a “trip that your parents don’t want you to take.” The destination was the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). As an adventurous young man, he signed up for the five-day New Year’s tour. That was his first mistake.
While staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, he spotted a poster on a wall, decided it would be a great souvenir, and — allegedly — took it. That was his second mistake. The keepsake proclaimed, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong Il’s patriotism!” Kim Jong Il was the father of the nation’s current dictator, Kim Jong Un.
A surveillance camera captured images of someone, later purported to be Wambier, removing the poster. He was apprehended at the airport as he was about to leave the country. His roommate said that he was calm at the time and smiled as if the arrest were a joke. That was his third mistake.
The U.S. State Department has issued its strongest warning to U.S. citizens not to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The StudentsAbroad website warns that, even in countries where our government maintains an embassy or consulate, these agencies are limited in what they can do to assist a U.S. citizen who gets in legal trouble.
U.S. citizens in a foreign land are bound by both U.S. law and the laws of the country that they are visiting. The U.S. Embassy or Consulate can assist in certain limited ways if a person inadvertently breaks a local law, but the United States does not have either an embassy or consulate in North Korea, and Americans who are traveling there must rely on Sweden’s embassy.
The State Department also advises travelers to enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This service can be contacted online, but tourists are warned that access to email while in North Korea may be impossible or severely restricted.
The State Department’s website shows a list of actions which, whether done knowingly or unknowingly, have been treated as crimes by North Korea. Among the list are these two admonitions:
“Showing disrespect to the country’s former leaders, Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il, or for the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, including but not limited to tampering with or mishandling materials bearing their names or images,” and
“Removing or tampering with political slogans and signs or pictures of political leaders.”
Visitors to the DPRK should have no expectation of privacy. U.S. citizens, especially, are advised that they may be monitored at all times. And, being part of a tour (like the New Year’s tour that Warmbier joined) is no insulation from harassment. The State Department’s website warns: “Being a member of a group tour or using a tour guide will not prevent North Korean authorities from detaining or arresting you. Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not been successful.”
According to Danny Gratton, Warmbier’s roommate while in the DPRK, at the airport, “No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away.”
On Feb. 29, 2016, Warmbier was recorded while reading a prepared statement admitting to the theft. It is still not known if the confession was made under duress. But the tape was shown by the state-run Korean Central News Agency during his trial. He had been charged with committing “a hostile act against the state.”
Bill Richardson, a U.S. envoy, met with two North Korean diplomats to try to negotiate Warmbier’s release from custody on March 16, 2016. Two hours after the meeting concluded, Warmbier was convicted and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Early last month, Warmbier’s parents were told by North Korean officials that Otto had contracted food-borne botulism and had fallen into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.
Seventeen months after his incarceration, Warmbier was released in a comatose state. He was flown home to the United States, and physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center attempted to help him. They could find no trace of botulism, but declared him to be in a “state of unresponsive wakefulness,” also known as a persistent vegetative state. He never recovered consciousness.
Medical records from North Korea indicated that he’d been in that condition since shortly after his conviction. The Ohio doctors concluded that he’d sustained substantial loss of brain tissue, probably due to a lack of oxygen.
As a father, I encouraged my son David to travel to other countries as a great educational experience. Initially, David traveled with my wife and me. But, even then, there can be problems.
When David was 5 years old, we went to Barbados, and I did not anticipate the fact that my son would need a passport. We had notarized paperwork from the airport in Atlanta, but that was not good enough when we were reentering the U.S. through Puerto Rico. I had to allow my son to be questioned by immigration officers, though I made sure that he never left my sight.
A few years later, with passport in hand, he spent a summer as violinist with the Kern County Youth Philharmonic Orchestra in Japan, with a side trip to Beijing, China. When he was a high-school junior, he spent a semester as a foreign-exchange student in Argentina. And, as a senior, he took his foreign language club on a cruise to Mazatlan, Mexico.
Although all of these experiences involved friendly countries, I can’t adequately express the degree of anxiety that I felt, watching my son leave U.S. soil. So, I’m at a total loss in trying to relate to the agony that is being experienced by the Warmbier family.
Students traveling abroad have to understand that they must obey all the rules. Something that may seem like a harmless prank at home could be a serious crime in another country.