A 21-year old American, a student at the University of Virginia, has been sentenced to 15 years of ‘hard labor’ in North Korea for taking as a souvenir a poster featuring a political slogan.
At his age, Otto Warmbier should be aware enough of world affairs – particularly concerning a country he plans to visit – to know that the South Korean government is like few others: It is a based, in effect, on the concept that the country’s leader, no matter his (in-)experience or (lack-of-)knowledge level, is a deity – a walking, talking, bad-decisions-making god, of sorts. That, in a nut shell, is what Kim Jong-il – an overweight idiot with a bad haircut – is.
There was a case a couple of years ago where two/three ‘tourists’ were taken into custody while hiking through a remote part of … was it Iran? Probably. Iran’s leaders, like those in a few other countries, are fanatics with missions no right-thinking person can make a lot of sense of. And this is, or should be, general knowledge – to anyone who reads a newspaper or online news services. And especially to anyone intending to stroll into some such country!
So why, you have to wonder, would two twenty-somethings be wandering around on a magical mystery adventure tour, in the backyard of a country known full-well to abhor Americans and everything America stands for?
I grant you, 15 years is, even for North Korea, a pretty harsh sentence for someone who misappropriated a poster. And in all likelihood, a deal will somehow be worked out so that Warmbier serves only a fraction of the sentenced time.
But it’s hard to have much sympathy for someone who put themselves in that position – by  even being in North Korea (is he totally nuts?) and  effectively defacing public – nee, ‘sacred’ – property by taking with intend to keep a political poster.
I know this is hardly comparable, but here’s the story: I was in Versailles, France, to visit the palace there – and a grand place it indeed is. Walking back to the train for Paris, I saw a poster in a butcher’s window for a Mozart concert that had taken place the night before. Knowing he really had no further use for it – and assuming he’d allowed it to be placed in his window as a favor to someone – I asked, in my petit Francais, if I could have the poster. He assented, and I carefully conveyed it back to the U.S., where it was, for a long time, a prized feature on one of my office walls. (I have no idea what ever happened to it. I’ve had 39 homes in two countries in my 73 years, and I’m sure most of them have seen something left behind.)
I took many photos in Russia and in Kosovo in 1974. Russia was just then opening itself up to tourists. Kosovo hosted me and a group of German journalists set on touring vineyards and sampling wine for six or so days. (Who keep track of time when you and your colleagues are consuming multiple bottles of wine daily at restaurants where you are a guest of the government – eating, by the way, essentially the same ‘local’ foods twice a day, because Kosovo is small, and most towns have the same or very similar ‘specialties’.)
Never, in either of those countries, both under more-or-less ‘communist’ governments at the time, did I have any problem with my capturing images of things the locals saw every day. Those governments may have been repressive in some ways, but they fully realized the value of hosting foreigners – tourists, in the case of Russia, guests of a wine-exporting company in the other.
North Korea is, or seems to be, bound and determined to remain a pariah nation – existing outside any ‘norm’s established elsewhere in the world, causing, for whatever reason, its people to suffer dietary and an assortment of other sufferings for … what?
The 1950-53 Korean War between the north and south entities on that peninsula was never ‘settled’, in that a truce was agreed, but peace never was. Meanwhile, under a democratic system, the south has prospered, and the north has struggled – hardly seeming to even attempt to overcome the hungers – for food, education, jobs and more – of its people.
Now that miniscule nation, such as it is, is messing around with developing nuclear bomb technology! One has to assume Kim Jong-il is getting advice as wise in that area – in creating the ability to do nuclear bomb-related harm to neighboring countries, and even the U.S. –as what he hears from whomever is cutting his hair!
Good luck, Otto. If you haven’t already, accept that kimchi is both a healthy (cabbage-based) side dish… and one more than likely to distract you, given its strong flavor, from other issues.