Detainee Update: Otto Warmbier



Exactly why the North holds detainees is somewhat of a mystery. In some cases, individuals may in fact be involved in subversive activities from the perspective of the regime; in others, it seems more a product of whim or gambit. In the case of Otto Warmbier, the answer can be found in the compulsion to construct conspiracies against North Korea and to use them for domestic political advantage. Thanks to yet another painful confession, we now have the proximate cause of Warmbier’s detention: he attempted unsuccessfully to steal a political banner out of the employee’s-only section of his hotel. But not for the college-student Pyongyang trophy it obviously was; rather, this “serious crime” came at the behest of a church, in order to undermine the morale of North Korean workers (at the behest of the US government) and for financial gain, with opportunism vis-a-vis a secret college society thrown in for good measure. According to The Guardian’s coverage, “Warmbier said he was offered a used car worth $10,000 by a member of the church. He said the church member told him the slogan would be hung on its wall as a trophy. He also said he was told that if he was detained and not returned, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in a way of charitable donations.” He said he accepted the offer because his family is “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.” As always, CNN was deftly used by North Korea to broadcast their message, and their account adds more theater-of-the-absurd detail.

The last time I checked e-Bay, North Korean propaganda banners were not fetching six figures. But the value of humiliating foreigners with earnest confessions, replete with positive references to the fairness of the DPRK legal system? Priceless.

Warmbier was detained on January 2, four days before the fourth nuclear test, and has been kept out of the spotlight until this week. We can’t see any plausible way that Warmbier’s detention could play into the larger policy debate and the endgame negotiations over sanctions at the UN; the US is certainly not going to trade him for anything of real value. It looks like more hapless work for the State Department and the Swedes, who manage US interests with the DPRK.

But the case once again raises serious questions that my colleague Marc Noland has been asking about the tourism industry for some time, and most recently here. How long can the adventure tourism industry continue to sell North Korea to our nominally-progressive youth as an exotic location worthy of visit? The most recent State Department travel advisory can be linked here. Safe travels.

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