We are all probably aware that American college student Otto Warmbier was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. However, many of us had already forgotten about another American being held by North Korea: Kim Dong Chul, born in South Korea but now a naturalized U.S. businessman. These two, along with South Korean-born Canadian citizen Lim Hyeon-soo, are apparently the only Westerners currently held hostage in North Korea.
Over the past several years, there have been numerous U.S. hostages sentenced to harsh prison terms for trivial offenses. Most of them have been held for varying periods until a high-ranking American went to North Korea to secure their release. Some were irresponsible tourists, a couple were arrogant newspaper people and several others were Christian missionaries. All of them were rescued through the efforts of former U.S. presidents or other senior-level government officials.
The necessity of prominent people having to engage in these negotiations is degrading and undignified
The necessity of prominent people having to engage in these negotiations is degrading and undignified. Such actions ought to occur at much lower levels of government, not at the top. However, those were the conditions of meeting imposed by Pyongyang in order to garner attention from the U.S. – brought about by unthinking individuals who should have known better.
BACKWARDS TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS
It is time to review the current U.S. policy of allowing American citizens to visit North Korea, no matter what the reason. Let’s start with some history. North Korea attacked South Korea to start the Korean War 66 years ago this June. During that conflict, more than 33,000 U.S. servicemen were killed and another 92,000 were wounded. According to official government sources, there are still approximately 5,000 missing in action.
The absurdity of allowing travel to North Korea while at the same time forbidding it to Cuba is astonishing. Cuba is certainly no friend of America, despite a recent effort to improve relations, nor is it a stellar example of democracy. However, it does not have nuclear weapons, it is not developing ICBMs, and it has not threatened to turn the U.S. or its other neighbors into a sea of fire. Despite being only 90 miles from the southern tip of the American state of Florida, Cuba has not attacked the U.S.
It is difficult to understand the logic behind allowing American citizens to visit North Korea for any reason whatever, given the propensity for the North to use such people as pawns in the North’s version of “R-E-S-P-E-C-T.” It should be recognized that Pyongyang has wanted the attention of the U.S. to discuss certain things for several years now, yet the U.S. refuses to listen, saying that without denuclearization, there is nothing to discuss. That is patently absurd, for there are countless topics that beg discussion. To begin, there are issues such as (a) family reunions for those separated by the Korean War, (b) food assistance for mothers and young children to prevent malnourishment and (c) medicines for widespread diseases like STDs and tuberculosis. These humanitarian issues are in addition to the widely recognized geopolitical ones. Nonetheless, the North has to resort to offering hostages as inducements to get the U.S. to the table.
COST IS POLITICAL CAPITAL
Hostages complicate U.S. foreign policy and cost huge amounts of political capital – all to indulge some ill-advised adventures
Hostages complicate U.S. foreign policy and cost huge amounts of political capital – all to indulge some ill-advised adventures. While sitting down to discuss things with one’s enemies is preferred to letting things fester until conflict breaks out, having to spend time and effort dealing with issues that are clearly manufactured for the sake of attention is not – and the situation is totally preventable.
North Korean tourism is a precarious bet even during the best of times. That the curiosity about one of the world’s most reclusive countries is a strong pull for some people is understandable. Even so, some temptations are to be avoided. Gratifying one’s personal fancies jeopardizes a number of important national policies. As we recently discovered, there were behind-the-scenes diplomatic efforts between Pyongyang and Washington late last year and earlier this year. They came to naught because of U.S. intransigence; however, a hostage predicament serves only to complicate such dealings – and it might even derail what could, at some point, be productive engagements in the future.
While nearly everyone appreciates the concerns of the devout who go to North Korea with the idea of spreading their faith to a downtrodden people, something a bit more practical is far more necessary. In fact, it could be argued that evangelicals do more harm than good, for the unfortunate North Korean citizens who are discovered to have been in contact with the devil’s advocates from America are often harshly punished for having been exposed to heresy, to use a word that the missionaries ought to understand quite well.
No? Well, consider that Kim Jong Un considers any faith to be a direct threat to his godlike rule of Kimilsungism. Now, please understand that the intent of this essay is not to challenge anyone’s beliefs or denigrate someone’s faith. The point is merely that missionaries in North Korea are not only a danger to themselves, but to their intended audience as well. Moreover, they are needlessly complicating the work of the U.S. Department of State and thereby interfering with the goals of American diplomacy, which we all should know by now suffers enough from its own political deficiencies and administrative diversions.
OPEN YOUR EYES
The argument is that sometimes people have good intentions but do the wrong thing. Regarding tourism, the curious ought to stick to South Korea – or China if a communist-socialist country is desired. It might – might – be better if the U.S. Department of State just prohibited tourism to North Korea. As for reporters, shame on them for being so self-centered. Pursuing a news story is no excuse for violating international law by entering a country illegally or under false pretenses. Those of faith may wish to recall the words of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who around 1150 wrote, “Hell is full of good wishes or desires,” a saying perhaps more recognizable today as “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.” Concerning aide workers and business people, it is indeed admirable that people choose to do their work under difficult conditions. It many instances, it is truly something that needs to be done.
Even so, people voluntarily going to North Korea need to have their eyes wide open and be aware of the risks. There may be more to this than meets the eye, but that will be discussed in another essay. For the time being, we do not need to complicate an already challenging process.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Ashley Moreno/Released
We are all probably aware that American college student Otto Warmbier was recently sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea. However, many of us had already forgotten about another American being held by North Korea: Kim Dong Chul, born in South Korea but now a naturalized U.S. businessman. These two, along with South Korean-born Canadian citizen Lim Hyeon-soo, are apparently the only
Robert E. McCoy is a retired U.S. Air Force Korean linguist and analyst/reporter who was stationed in Asia for more than fourteen years. He continues to follow developments in East Asia closely. Mr. McCoy’s book Tales You Wouldn’t Tell Your Mother is now out. He can be contacted via his website http://musingsbymccoy.com/ which also lists his previous essays and has personal vignettes on Asia (Tidbits) not published elsewhere.