Otto Warmbier should have known North Korea is a repressive state, not a quirky holiday destination

We all feel sorry for the American student - but the idea that North Korea is just another stamp to add to the passport has to end

Sebastien Smith
Friday 18 March 2016 15:06
Otto Warmbier escorted by a North Korean guard
Otto Warmbier escorted by a North Korean guard

“A land forgotten.”; “The world’s most secretive country.”

This is how North Korea is introduced on Lonely Planet, a travel website.

The world’s last Stalinist state is often advertised as a quirky and mysterious travel destination for those seeking perhaps the most obscure passport stamp. Another tourism website invites travellers to visit “one of the most magical places still untouched by the outside world.”

For American tourist Otto Warmbier, however, his trip was anything but “magical”.

On Wednesday the 21-year-old student was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. He was arrested as he attempted to leave the country in January.

In the Hermit Kingdom, any crime - no matter how small - can be used to fit with the regime’s narrative that it is constantly under threat from imperialist western powers. The Korean Central News Agency, the mouthpiece of the regime, said the offence was "pursuant to the US government's hostile policy." Warmbier appeared on TV making an apology and confession that sounded suspiciously scripted.

The episode is a stark reminder that underneath the image created by travel agencies, North Korea is a dangerous totalitarian state with a horrendous human rights record.

"Foreigners who travel to [North Korea] on tightly controlled tours are also subjected to strict control, coercion, surveillance, and ultimately punishment if the regime thinks they have 'fallen out of line,” says Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.

“Absolutely no one is safe while inside North Korea."

According to Human Rights Watch, North Korea “remains among the world’s most repressive countries” in which the government attempts to intrude on all aspects of daily life.

The moment US student Otto Warmbier stole poster of 'Kim Jong il' in North Korea

Dissenters are sent to labour camps in which they are subject to torture, rape and eventual execution. They are often joined by their families for sharing the same “tainted blood.”

Its economy has been in dire straits thanks to continued economic mismanagement. After the fall of the Soviet Union, which had been propping up the North Korean state with cheap fuel oil, a devastating famine ensued resulting in the deaths of around 330,000 people from 1994 to 2000.

Critics point out that tourism treats the country like a normal state, thus legitimising the regime and ignoring human rights abuses. Even supporters concede that travellers provide the state with much needed foreign currency - tourists are not allowed to use the North Korean won but instead euros and dollars, which are better for lubricating the country’s foreign trade.

This makes the country a controversial choice for travel.

Admittedly, some others see the benefit of tourists visiting North Korea. John Sweeney, journalist and author of North Korea Undercover claimed that, “The goal of the regime is to keep their people in the dark about the outside world and say how it is worse off than their country.

“But when North Koreans see westerners with their nice shoes and expensive camera equipment, it is a drop of evidence that the regime is lying.”

Yet the state also benefits from tourists in the country in a more subtle way - albeit only from those who “fall out of line” with the state. Like other convicted tourists before him, it is improbable that Warmbier will serve much of his sentence. He will likely be used as a pawn by the regime as it continues its nuclear programme.

Tourism may help the regime with foreign cash while offering its people a glimpse of the benefits of liberal capitalism. And almost all of the thousands of tourists who visit each year do so safely.

But tourists like Warmbier not only put themselves in danger - they undermine efforts for a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. That is the real danger. And it’s important to remember the baggage that can come with treating the world’s most repressive state like a holiday destination.

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