Monday, September 22, 2014


While my bucket list contains a couple of places I’d like to visit, I have to confess that – thanks to my narrow Euro- and U.S. centric focus – I’ve pretty much been to most of the places I consider “must see.”

No, I haven’t been to Venice. And I do need to check off Portugal at some point so that I can complete my full, Western Europe sweep. In these United States, I need to get to Alaska, North Dakota, Kentucky and Tennessee in order to complete the nifty fifty before I kick. (I may lower my standards and say I’ve been to Kentucky because that’s where the Cincinnati airport is, and I have been to Cincinnati. And I once had a layover in Memphis…)

Sure, I’d like to get to Australia and New Zealand at some point. Japan, Hong Kong, Vietnam. If I could get dropped in to India for a couple of hours to see the Taj Mahal, and if I could get dropped into China for a couple of hours to see the Great Wall, I’d like to go.

Buenos Aires? I’m sure it’s muy bueno.

And, yes, I would likely enjoy a luxury safari to Kenya or South Africa or wherever the safest safaris take place.

But if I’m crying on my death-bed, it won’t be because I never saw Mt. Fuji or Mt. Kilimanjaro or Machu Pichu.

Personally, see Pittsburgh and die is more up my travel alley.

I guess you might say that the travel bug that bit me was decidedly parochial and limited.

And while there are plenty of places that would be nice-to-haves out there, I also have a list of MUST NOTS.

North Korea ranks right up near the top of that list.

Okay, if I were absolutely forced to take a trip, and the choices were Sudan, Syria and North Korea, I’d be brushing up on how many variants of kimchi exist.

But I really have no desire at all to see for myself what a totalitarian, spectacularly repressive, art-less (in every meaningful sense) country being run by a third-generation personality cult regime looks like. (“Oh, the mountains are beautiful. The children are adorable. The streets are clean.”)

And yet there are those who, for whatever reason that I cannot fathom, actually want to go there.

One of them was Matthew Miller, a young Californian who traveled to North Korea and, once there “ripped up his visa so he could go to prison and expose human rights violations”, and who a few weeks ago was “sentenced to six years of hard labor.” I suspect that what the North Koreans call “hard labor” is just that. Nothing as namby-pamby as stamping out license plates (not needed in North Korea to begin with, since so few people are car owners) or manning retail call centers (not needed in North Korea to begin with, since so few people have any discretionary money and there’s nothing to buy, even if they did). (Source of quoted material: CNN.)

Miller is one of three Americans imprisoned in North Korea. Of the other two, one appears to be a naïve but well-intentioned ninny who, having been warned against going to North Korea, left a bible in a public place.  A well-known no-no. The other is a Korean-American evangelist who’s had more serious charges lodged against him.

As for our young friend from Bakersfield:

While traveling, Miller reportedly tore up his visa and declared himself “not a tourist.” The court said he intended to “experience prison life so that he could investigate the human rights situation." (Source: LA Times)

Well, I’m quite sure that the world did not need Matthew Miller to “investigate the human rights situation” in North Korea, which is widely documented and well known.

And yet, whatever the drivers – idealism, naiveté, hubris, egomania, desire for notoriety, mental illness - Matthew Miller’s there, and has now double-dog-dared himself into a six year prison sentence.

Naturally, he is appealing to the government for help:

In his awkward interview with CNN, Miller called on the U.S. government to help him and complained that officials in Washington were not doing enough to assist in his case. “I’ve written a letter to my president with no reply,” he said. “For this reason, I am disappointed in my government.”

By most political standards, I’m a nanny-stater, but, jeez Louise, here’s one nanny stater who’d just as soon let this cry-baby (as long as he’s not shown to be mentally ill) stand there in his crib crying.

I really have a hard time exercising any of my well-flexed sympathy muscle on someone who deliberately goes out of his or her way to put themselves in a dangerous situation, and then expects the government to bail them out. Whether it’s the couple who had to send for the U.S. Navy to rescue their sick one-year old while the family was sailing around the world on the adventure of a lifetime. The young American hikers who wanted to trek off the beaten trail in Iraq/Kurdistan (let’s do go camping in a war zone) and ended up spending a couple of years off the beaten trail in an Iranian prison. And now Matthew Miller. You really think the president is supposed to answer the letter of every jackass who does something dumb while out of the confines of the U.S. of A. and finds himself in trouble?

We’re not talking about journalists, those working on humanitarian efforts in awful places, or even missionaries who get caught up in a rebellion.

We’re talking about someone who went out his way to bite his thumb at the notoriously thin-skinned and harsh North Korean government, and, it would seem, got exactly what he asked for.

Meanwhile, Miller had been on a tour run by a New Jersey outfit called URI, which specializes in trips to North Korea, a country it states has a “unique culture and distinct way of living.”

Well, I guess you might call a dictatorship run by a personality-cult leader “unique”. And I suppose you might say that a country that has demonstrated a continued willingness to allow vast numbers of its citizen to starve to death has a “distinct way of living.”

URI’s web site asks, is it safe? Is it legal?

But it doesn’t ask the one question that anyone considering going to North Korea should be asking: DOES IT MAKE ANY FREAKING SENSE?

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