Merrill Newman’s real “offensive” was booking a tour of North Korea in the first place.

Just last week, I predicted that we were entering the provocation phase of North Korea’s mood cycle. The day after I wrote that we’d soon read of “satellite theater” and steam coming from reactors, the IAEA said that North Korea had restarted Yongbyon.

The day after that, North Korea released a hostage video of an 85-year old tourist with a heart condition, after forcing him to sign a “confession” to war crimes that he’d allegedly committed 60 years ago. Or at least, something about the wording of the confession tells us that Merrill Newman wasn’t exactly speaking from his own stream of consciousness:

Newman’s letter, filled with grammatical errors and perplexing run-on sentences, appeared to have been written by a nonnative English speaker.  “I realize that I cannot be forgiven for my offensives,” the letter says, “but I beg for pardon on my knees by apologizing for my offensives sincerely toward the [North Korean] government and the Korean people and I want not punish me.”

North Korea releases this “confession” just after investing millions of dollars in a new ski resort that no one is using, despite the fact that 84% of its people still can’t find enough to eat. It probably takes the mind of a psychopath to understand North Korea’s financial priorities. Maybe, taking P.T. Barnum’s apocryphal advice to heart, it believes that tourists will flock to North Korea notwithstanding these latest incidents. Or, maybe Kim Jong Un’s true objective is to turn North Korea into Cartmanland.

Although the Treasury Department has a ban in place against all “transactions incident to travel to, from, or within Cuba,” there is no such ban against travel to North Korea, despite the fact that the State Department admits that it can’t protect the safety Americans there, or the fact that North Korea now holding two of them in its jails for political crimes. Cuba is the only foreign government still covered by the Trading With the Enemy Act, because President Bush withdrew the TWEA regulations on North Korea on October 11, 2008, when he removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Discuss among yourselves.

Merrill Newman’s neighbors helpfully inform us that he’s really a very nice man. If, as his “confession” holds, he served as an advisor to anti-Communist resistance fighters during the war, his wartime service supported an especially honorable part of the resistance to Kim Il Sung’s invasion. Subsequent history leaves little doubt about how much better off North Koreans would be if those fighters had prevailed. (See, e.g., the masthead icon in the upper left-hand corner of this page.)

A more disturbing passage in Newman’s confession, however, suggests that his visit may well have put a lot of North Korean lives in danger. Its text, which may well be an invention of Newman’s interrogators, claims that Newman was an advisor to anti-Communist guerrillas in North Korea during the war, and nothing terrifies the North Korean regime quite like the idea of bands of guerrillas taking root among a discontented rural population and operating in their mountainous, nearly roadless wilderness.

If I saw surviving soldiers in Mt. Kuwol, I was going to connect them with the members of the Kuwol Partisan Comrades-in-Arms Association which I had already connected with, anti-Communist strategic plot organization.

All the members of the Kuwol Partisan Comrades-in-Arms Association escaped from the DPRK to South Korea. So I asked the guide to help me to look for their families and relatives living in DPRK and I gave the document written with their address and e-mail address to the guide in the Yanggakdo Hotel.

Ironically, Newman “confessed” to the honorable act of aiding North Koreans in their fight against an oppressive system, but if the quoted passage is true, the confession itself and the naiveté that led up to it may have put innocent lives in danger. Now, at the end of his life, Newman bears on his soul that he’s become an anti-Schindler. In a less direct way, that’s also true of other tourists who visit North Korea.

The first obligation of a visitor to a foreign country is to do no harm to its people. That imposes a responsibility to know enough about that place to know how to do them no harm. The first thing Newman ought to have known about North Korea is that there is no such thing as tolerance or forgiveness of dissent, even 60 years later. The second thing he ought to have known is that this regime doesn’t just punish the dissenter. Their children will get the worst of it; they may will end up dying in prison camps (opens in pdf). Other relatives are likely to find themselves blacklisted under the songbun system of collective punishment (also opens in pdf), excluded from the best jobs and relegated to starvation. The same goes for any innocents raked up in the ensuing dragnet and condemned for the regime’s mere suspicion against an ancestor.

Who should have told Merrill Newman these things? Unfortunately, the North Korea travel industry, such as it is, is populated with questionable characters who don’t tell their charges these things, either because of their own political biases or because they don’t want to jeopardize their own access to North Korea.

This takes us to a third thing that everyone who visits North Korea should know. A visit to North Korea — really, a guided tour in and around Pyongyang — costs about $1,000 for 5 days, compared to $285 for a five-day tour around Bangkok (also, don’t forget to tip your minders). Apply the labor theory of value to this comparatively high price and it’s clear that Kim Jong Un’s cut is substantial. A trip to North Korea offers little meaningful interaction with its people or insight into how they really live, but as Newman’s case illustrates, less interaction may do less harm than more interaction. In a place like North Korea — and of course, there isn’t one — you don’t have to be a Korean War veteran to do something stupid that gets people killed. Even so, a tourist who manages not to directly jeopardize the safety of any North Koreans during his visit still perpetuates its political system simply by buying a tour. That indirectly jeopardizes all of them.

When I was much younger, Americans boycotted South Africa, then ruled by a racist oligarchy, to protest human rights violations that were widespread, pervasive, and not nearly as severe as those occurring under North Korea’s oligarchy today. If you acknowledge that boycotting South Africa was the right thing to do then, you can’t offer a moral defense of tourism to North Korea now.

[Update: I revised the title of this post in the interest of clarity.]

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