Today’s news of the tragic death of Otto Warmbier should serve as a turning point in how the world engages North Korea. The brutality and denial of proper medical care for over a year ultimately doomed this 22-year-old college student. No one deserves that kind of treatment.
North Korea did not release Warmbier on “humanitarian” grounds, as they claim. Instead, they whisked him away before he died, so they could deny any wrongdoing and chalk it up to botulism and a sleeping pill. Denial has been North Korea’s modus operandi for decades. It is time to stop giving them free passes.
Warmbier’s death hits close to home. I was once a U.S college student who also traveled to North Korea. I thought I was being “adventurous.” Looking back on it, I was just naïve. But I got out of North Korea healthy. Warmbier was not so lucky.
In the end, it does not matter if Warmbier took down the propaganda poster. Even if he did, it was a stupid college prank and no one deserves imprisonment, the treatment, and the outcome that Warmbier received.
Warmbier’s death may finally show the outside world, especially those directly involved in tourism to North Korea, that you cannot truly engage with the North Korean people. You can only engage with the regime. That’s easy. The U.S has been frequently doing it over the past year with no tangible results, and if you engage the DPRK government, you will eventually get burned. North Korea simply operates on a different level. To them, it’s a guerilla war. No one is immune from this conflict, not even an innocent college kid from Ohio.
This past weekend, there was a fundraiser in Seoul raising money for elementary schoolchildren and teachers in rural Samjiyong County. Ostensibly, this seems like a great initiative. Donating school supplies to rural North Koreans is a noble endeavor.
You cannot truly engage with the North Korean people. You can only engage with the regime
But shouldn’t the North Korean government be the ones spending money on these basic necessities for its people? Shouldn’t they redirect money from their bloated military budget or Kim Jong Un’s yacht funds for some pencils and paper?
Many travelers to North Korea truly think they are helping to change the country. They often talk about how their mere presence exposes the North Koreans to the fact that they are not devils. This type of explanation that seeks to rationalize tourism to North Korea underestimates the wit and intellect of North Koreans.
The North Korean people who meet tourists already know that foreigners are not evil monsters, but North Koreans in close contact with foreigners will not be the ones who start a revolution there. They have the most to lose: they live relatively extravagant lives on the tips of tourists. As B.R Myers once said, engagement changes only one side. Unfortunately, it is our side that changes, after they come home singing praises of how clean, efficient, and organized North Korea seemingly, is based on their 5-day tour of Pyongyang.
Sports and cultural exchanges are equally problematic. When it comes to engaging North Korea, nothing is apolitical, despite the ostensibly apolitical nature of sports and “culture.” These exchanges won’t do much except put money into the coffers of the elite and prop up the prestige of the Kim family regime.
It is time to approach North Korea the way the world treated apartheid-era South Africa
This past weekend on Reddit, a popular online forum, a group of pro-engagement hockey players, fresh from visiting North Korea, hosted a Q&A. The lambasting they received from participants was well deserved.
As one reader aptly commented: “What you’re doing is giving tacit consent for the government to continue the status quo. By caving in and allowing the ruling elite and PR departments to pull off this stunt you have directly cooperated in approving of the oppression of the rest of the people in that nation.”
It is time to approach North Korea the way the world treated apartheid-era South Africa. In addition to banning tourism to North Korea, banning them from international athletic competitions, such as FIFA events and Olympics, is a good start.
Despite what some readers may think, North Korea does care about its standing in the world. A travel ban and the discontinuation of its Olympics and FIFA memberships will send a message to Pyongyang that if it wants to be included in the international community, it needs to change its ways.
The tragic death of Warmbier may expose previously unaware individuals to the horrors of North Korea. Perhaps it took the death of a white American college kid to expose it, but it’s important to remember that many others are held hostage by this tyrannical and brutal dictatorship.
Feature image: NK News
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: PYONGYANG CITY METRO DPR KOREA OCT 2012 by calflier001 on 2012-10-23 07:19:15