North Korea announced today that it has arrested a University of Virginia student on charges of “we felt like it” and “he picked the wrong day to be in Pyongyang”:
Otto Frederick Warmbier, 21, was detained Jan. 2 at Pyongyang airport as he prepared to leave after a five-day trip over the New Year’s holiday, said Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, the agency that organized the trip.
This was four days before North Korea conducted its latest nuclear test, and makes Warmbier the third Westerner known to be held in North Korea — a move that is certain to elevate already high tensions.
But Warmbier’s detention was not made public until Friday, when the official Korean Central News Agency said it was questioning him about taking part in “anti-state activity.”
The brief statement gave no further information about the accusations or the current status of the student.
You can blame the North Korean government for arresting this kid, but that’s kind of like blaming the scorpion for stinging the frog–this is what they do.
I don’t blame Warmbier; 21 year olds are supposed to do questionable things out of a spirit of adventure, and the rest of the world needs more people willing to go see what North Korea is really like, frankly. I hope he’s freed in short order, though I fear he won’t be.
It’s believed North Korea is currently holding two Westerners, one of whom (a Canadian pastor) has been sentenced to life in a labor camp for, well, something (probably proselytizing, but these charges are always deliberately vague). There have been past instances of Americans picked up in North Korea who were freed a few months later, but obviously you can’t extrapolate from one single case to another. If the North Koreans picked up Warmbier as a hedge against new sanctions stemming from their “hydrogen bomb” test a couple of weeks ago, then I suspect they’ll be out of luck (and, unfortunately, so will Warmbier).
You know who I do blame, a little bit? Young Pioneer Tours. Maybe Warmbier would have thought twice about making this trip if those guys hadn’t written this copy for their website:
But in the frequently asked questions on its website, Young Pioneers answers a question about safety in North Korea by saying: “Extremely safe!”
“Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit. Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of,” the travel agency says.
“We have never felt suspicious or threatened at any time. In fact, North Koreans are super friendly and accommodating, if you let them into your world. Even during tense political moments tourism to the DPRK is never affected,” the site said.
Adding, “well, ‘never’ may be too strong, but we promise you have a real good, better than 50/50 for sure, chance of not winding up in a North Korean prison if you give us your money.”
If you want to run tours to dangerous places, as long as it’s not someplace illegal then go for it. If somebody wants to pay you to take them to one of those dangerous places, then by all means take their money. But you probably shouldn’t be allowed to lie about travel to obviously risky places in an attempt to drum up business. If Young Pioneers Tours lied this brazenly about a physical product they were selling, they’d be fined by the FCC and maybe face some criminal charges if somebody got hurt. In this case, a 21 year old is in a North Korean prison, maybe for a very long time. What’s the appropriate penalty for that?
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