Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Otto Warmbier, Dennis Rodman, and North Korea

The following is based on an interview I had with Dan Mandis on his Nashville, TN radio show (99.7 FM) on June 20, 2017. It is not a direct transcript but covers everything discussed and adds some additional information that we weren't able to get to due time restraints. The actual interview is available on iTunes for free (my segment begins at minute 18:44).

Dan Mandis Show 99.7 WWTN, Nashville
12:35-12:55 CST

Why was Otto Warmbier there and why does anybody still go to North Korea?
Otto was travelling in China and the decision to visit North Korea seems to have been fairly impulsive after he saw an advertisement from a tour group. North Korea holds a certain allure for many and several hundred Americans and a few thousand Westerners visit each year, along with thousands of Chinese and smaller numbers from countries around the world.

As for why, North Korea is unique and can offer a lot in the way of throw-back Soviet-style culture that’s mixed with ancient Korean history. And for the most part, they leave people alone. There’s an argument to be made that people shouldn’t visit because you’re giving money to an evil regime, but there’s also a counter argument that defends travel because you expose North Koreans to different people and ideas – which can help weaken the leadership over time. And really the only people who can resolve the dispute are the people who decide for themselves to either visit or not.

Who are remaining prisoners?
There are three Americans still being held by North Korea: Kim Sang-duk, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Dong Chul. All three are Korean-American Christians and are charged with crimes relating to missionary work, something North Korea takes very seriously. Of the 16 Americans detain by the North since 1999, 5 were connected to Christian groups. Nine were Korean-Americans.

What happened to Otto?
The official North Korean story is that he had botulism poisoning, which you can get from inappropriately packaged food – something that’s plausible given the state of affairs over there. Of course, Otto’s American doctors say there was no evidence of that. What really happen may never be known; he could have easily been hurt during an accident, beating, or during a torture session. We know from previous detainees that North Korea is not afraid to abuse American prisoners. And while his death is very sad, given how long he was in a comma and the damage to his brain, his death wasn’t surprising.

North Korea tries to hide anything that hints at the terrible conditions in their prisons or the failure of their medical system, so it’s reasonable to think they held him for so long in the hopes he would recover so they could coverup the whole thing. But the last thing North Korea wanted was to have a dead American in their custody, and I think his inability to come out of the coma played a role in them releasing him.

Describe what hard labor is really like in North Korea?
Honestly, it depends. But looking at the average, hard labor usually involves working in agriculture or in mining operations. The lack of equipment means using brut human strength and simple things like Ox carts and hand tools to farm the land – very much Medieval technology. Mining is done in deplorable conditions with little to no safety considerations. Accidents and mine collapses are common.

Prisoners are forced to work up to 15 hours a day, every day, and often receive less than 400 grams of food rations (usually corn with salt) – that’s a maximum of 1,500 calories a day. That means prisoners have to find mice, bugs, and even weeds to supplement their diets. When you add nonexistent sanitation, under those conditions the body quickly starts falling apart.   

What is our policy?
Currently the only policy the US has regarding travel to North Korea, is that Americans are discouraged from going. We don’t have diplomatic relations with them so direct travel is not possible. Every American that goes there must do so via a third-party nation, usually China. Even if we were to outright ban travel there, unless China helped us enforce that ban, Americans could still find a way if they were intent on it. The US State Department doesn’t (or can’t) even keep track of who goes to North Korea.

We don’t have any explicit policy on dealing with the North either when it comes detainees – and Otto was the first American prisoner to die since basically the Korean War. All we can do consider stronger sanctions – which haven’t stopped the slow progress of their military or prevented their economy from grinding forward.

What has Dennis Rodman accomplished this time around?
What role Rodman played in Otto’s release, if any, isn’t known. Prisoner releases have happened whenever a high-profile politician or former official payed a visit, because it confers a level of legitimacy on the regime, or when the North extracted some kind of food aid or other concession. They basically use prisoners as pawns. Having said that. Rodman’s visit could have just been coincidental, as he does consider Kim Jong-un a friend of sorts and since the US had been working toward Otto’s release since day one.

What About Young Pioneer Tours?
People are always encouraged to travel to North Korea using one of several official tour companies. Visiting on your own invites disaster. The problem with the company Otto used, Young Pioneer Tours, is that they appear to have used deceptive marketing to make the risks associated with going to North Korea seem less than they really were for Americans, while also promoting the allure of a “risky adventure” by saying their company somehow held sway in North Korea and if you used them you were less likely to be harassed or arrested.

Since these companies are often based in China, China’s obligation in this would be to tighten regulations associated with such companies. As I said earlier, even if the US were to enact a travel ban, it would be up to China to be the main enforcer.

In the end, the real point is to never take travelling to North Korea lightly and do a whole lot of research before you go. The overall risk is relatively low (it’s less than 1%), but even bending the rules there can get you in deep trouble and without adequate research, you may inadvertently break a law you didn’t realize even would be a law. An example of that is the disposal of newspapers that have the image of Kim Jong-un on them. You are not allowed to just throw it away, you can’t even fold the paper to where the picture is folded in half. 

--Jacob Bogle, 6/20/2017

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