More Detainees: Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong Chul



The individuals North Korea has detained make up a varied lot, from the dedicated humanitarians who finally get swept up for crossing some line, to naives, attention-seekers and sheer misfits; our posts on them are linked below. The media often describes the charges against these detainees as “trumped up,” and it is true that the indictments are typically laced with bloated rhetorical flourishes; Foreign Policy offers up a useful summary. But to call the charges “trumped up” misses an important point: that in an authoritarian political order, the legal system is characterized by incredible state discretion, weak standards of proof, and no opportunity for defense. From the perspective of the regime, these individuals probably were involved in something deemed subversive.

But the case of Otto Warmbier, a college student at the University of Virginia, actually raises more serious issues about North Korean adventure tourism, and whether tour operators can really guarantee the safety even of those going on these tightly stage-managed escapades. According to reporting by the Independent, Warmbier appeared to be up drinking late with others in a Young Pioneer Tours group prior to getting on an early flight departing the country. At the airport, another passenger reports Warmbier was stopped. James Pearson at Reuters reports that the incident for which he was detained occurred at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where the group was staying, and was described by KCNA as “a hostile act against the state” that was "tolerated and manipulated by the U.S. government."

Young Pioneer Tours released an anodyne and ultimately self-serving statement saying that Warmbier’s privacy should be protected while they cooperated on getting him released. But of course, his privacy cannot be protected and Young Pioneer Tours will have no role in getting him released because North Korea has purposefully dragged the US into yet another pointless diplomatic contretemps that will waste the time and effort of American officials.

Perhaps because of his youth and apparent innocence, the Warmbier episode has overshadowed the case of Kim Dong Chul, also at one time a resident of Virginia. (CNN has a virtual franchise on gaining access to the detainees, suggesting how clearly North Korean authorities understand the American media and who has reach). The Kim case is potentially more serious because of North Korean concerns about native Korean speakers and charges that he was engaged in espionage. A naturalized American citizen—CNN was shown and photographed his passport—Kim claimed to CNN that he had moved to Yanji in 2001, from where he commuted to Rason. Again according to CNN, he was the president of a company involved in “international trade and hotel services.” The Kim case strikes us somewhat mysterious. It is not impossible that an American citizen would head a company in Rason, but also more than a little out of the ordinary. Virtually all news about Kim has also come from a single CNN story and to our knowledge the State Department has not acknowledged the case.

Finally, NKNews has an interesting feature on Chinese tourism to North Korea. The storyline focuses on how Chinese visitors see North Korea as a kind of living throwback to the 1970s in China. It is doubtful that the North Koreans will detain any Chinese soon, but how knows? They appear to be doing everything else in their power to alienate their patron.

Previous Posts on the Detainees


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