Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Innocents Abroad, Otto Warmbier Edition

Otto Warmbier should be back in class, starting the second semester of his junior year at the University of Virginia. Instead, he’s sitting in jail in Pyongyang, having been nabbed at the airport just was he was getting out of town. It’s not quite clear why Warmbier is being detained. Just that:

North Korea's official KCNA news agency said on Friday that Warmbier "was caught committing a hostile act against the state", which it said was "tolerated and manipulated by the U.S. government".  (Source: Reuters)
Another interpretation of the official government statement on the incident suggested even more sinister intent:
In language that mirrors past North Korean claims of outside conspiracies, Pyongyang’s state media said the University of Virginia student entered the country under the guise of a tourist and plotted to destroy North Korean unity with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” (Source: cincinnati.com)
“Tacit connivance”, huh?
That sure sounds like what the government would be doing with some too-cool-for-school undergrad idiot who decided it would be awesome to spend New Year’s Eve partying in North Korea. Forget the ghost of Guy Lombardo. Forget the ghost of Dick Clark. Forget just kicking back and watching the ball drop with Ryan Seacrest. Nothing says Rockin’ New Year’s Eve like sportin’ around with Kim Jong-un.
Look, I feel bad for this kid. He must be scared shitless, and his parents must be out of their minds with worry.
Otto Warmbier is in jail in a closed, authoritarian country with which we have no diplomatic relations – so no kindly ambassador showing up at the jailhouse door with a ‘hang in there’ and a plate of cupcakes. And it’s a country run by a vicious, insane, arbitrary, brutal megalomaniac. It’s a place where you can get arrested for looking cross-eyed at a picture of fearless leader Kim Jong-un, who’s not especially fearless when it comes to petty insults directed his way.
The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK). This replaces the Travel Warning for North Korea of April 15, 2015, to reiterate and highlight the risk of arrest and long-term detention due to the DPRK’s inconsistent application of its criminal laws.
Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries.  North Korean authorities have arrested U.S. citizens who entered the DPRK legally on valid DPRK visas as well as U.S. citizens who accidentally or intentionally crossed into DPRK territory without valid visas. The Department of State has received reports of DPRK authorities detaining U.S. citizens without charges and not allowing them to depart the country.  North Korea has even detained several U.S. citizens who were part of organized tours.  Do not assume that joining a group tour or using a tour guide will prevent North Korean authorities from detaining you or arresting you.  Efforts by private tour operators to prevent or resolve past detentions of U.S. citizens in the DPRK have not succeeded in gaining their release.
That would be enough for me, and you’d think it would be enough for someone bright enough to be an honors student at the University of Virginia.
But Warmbier is oh, so very young, and oh, so very foolish (which is easy enough to be when you’re young). And so a tour run by Young Pioneer Tours – and you’ve really got to love a tour organization named after the USSR’s brainwashing, mind-effing, red-scarved Communist Youth groups of yore – must have hit all the right notes.  What young and foolish 21 year old wouldn’t be lured by an outfit “specialising in travel to North Korea, we are an adventure tour operator that provides “’budget tours to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from’”.

I did plenty of foolish things when I was young, but at least I knew enough to fear being detained in places where the US didn’t hold sway.

Hitchhiking through Yugoslavia, my friend Joyce and I were picked up by a couple of French guys. We stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch, and one of the guys leaned over, and in what we used to call an Irish whisper, announced “Nous avons hashish.”

This was a few years after Billy Hayes of Midnight Express fame was arrested in Turkey for carrying hashish. And a few months after someone who went to my high school was busted there, as well. Although Therese G. was acquitted, the thought of being in a rancid jail in a scary-enough foreign country was on our minds. There is no way in hell we would have used or carried drugs. Or be found in the company of someone idiotic enough to Irish whisper “Nous avons hashish” while a couple of members of the Yugoslav state police – who looked plenty armed and plenty dangerous – were seated at the next table.

In our pidgin French, we managed to convey that we wanted to get our backpacks out of the trunk of their voiture. They went their ways, and we went ours.

So this was as close as I came to being an innocent abroad, caught up in someone else’s folly.

Who knows what Otto Warmbier did? There are rumors that he had gotten drunk. That he’d done “something” at the hotel, possibly making a lame joke, cocking a snook, however innocuous, at Kim Jong-un in some foolhardy way. North Korea is just not a place where you can’t make a joke about the leader’s hairdo, or fold the cover of a magazine in such a way that it would crease his face, without risk of landing you and your family in prison.

As I said, I feel bad for this kid and his family, and hope he gets sprung quickly. But this will mean the State Department having to do some fandango to satisfy Kim Jung-un’s insane ego, and who knows how that will play out. Otto Warmbier’s now a pawn, and he’s not just in play, he’s at risk of being stuck in North Korea for quite a while.

But what part of ‘stay out of North Korea’ did he not understand?

I really don’t like it when Americans - under the supremely naive and narcissistic belief that they should be allowed to travel untrammeled, and with full American rights in our backpacks, anywhere in the world -  find themselves trapped. And I don't like us having to foot the bill to rescue those who do ill-advised and foolhardy things.

One thing for journalists or aid workers. Quite another thing for garden variety tourists, or college kids looking for something quirky and off-beat to add to their c.v. What was it a few years back? A bunch of adventurers who wanted the thrill of backpacking in Iran and Iraq?

When Otto Warmbier is retrieved – and I sincerely hope that happens soon – I think there should be some payback for whatever efforts the government has to put forth to haul him out of there. How about he appears in a PSA talking about what a fool he was to think he could be a jokey, haha, USA-USA-USA tourist in a place like North Korea.

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