Travel in N. Korea “feels incredibly safe,” says tour company whose customer just got 6 years hard labor.

In a proceeding that took just 90 minutes — about as long as most arraignments I’ve done — North Korea’s “Supreme Court” has sentenced American tourist Matthew Todd Miller to six years of hard labor for “entering the country illegally and trying to commit espionage.” The AP omits the State Department’s easily accessible finding that North Korea’s “judiciary was not independent and did not provide fair trials,” but adds the amusing detail that Miller waived his right to a North Korean lawyer.

It also adds the interesting and new (to me) details that Miller “admitted to having the ‘wild ambition’ of experiencing prison life so that he could secretly investigate North Korea’s human rights situation,” and “claimed, falsely, that his iPad and iPod contained secret information about the U.S. military in South Korea.” Or so say the North Korean “prosecutors.”

It isn’t clear what gave Miller the notion that he would be housed in the same conditions as North Korean political prisoners, but it’s a safe bet that he won’t be gassed to test a chemical weapon, forced to dig his own grave and beaten to death with a hammer, killed for trying to eat a guard’s whip or eating chestnuts off the ground, or drowned in a waste pond. Or raped and murdered. Or made to race next to a modern-day “parachutist’s wall” for the amusement of his guards.

Also, I wonder who’ll break it to Miller that someone else has already written a book about conditions in North Korea’s Gulag Lite, the North Korean analogue to a “country club” prison.

In prison, Miller will join fellow American Kenneth Bae. A third American tourist, Jeffrey Fowle, has not yet been formally tried and sentenced. The Rev. Kim Dong Shik, a lawful permanent resident whom North Koreans abducted from China and brought to North Korea in 2000, is unavailable for comment.

The consensus view of North Korea’s motive for sentencing Miller to hard labor, rather than giving him a good smack on the side of his head and putting him on the next flight out, is that it is political. That is, Pyongyang is using its American hostages to force the U.S. government into talks about aid, diplomatic recognition, sanctions relief, and de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. As even the AP concedes, “North Korea has a long history of attempting to use American detainees to win attention and concessions from Washington, which insists Pyongyang must give up its nuclear ambitions before relations can be normalized.”

President Bush removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008. The Obama Administration’s official view is that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.” Discuss among yourselves.

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This morning, out of curiosity, I went to the web site of Uri Tours,* the company that sold Miller his overpriced tour of North Korea, and found this:

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[Plaintiff’s Exhibit A, accessed September 14, 2014.]

The U.S. State Department takes a very different view of whether travel in North Korea is safe:

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[Plaintiff’s Exhibit B]

Imagine a company in America selling asbestos pajamas with “feels incredibly safe!” printed on the packaging. Gleeful personal injury lawyers would line up outside the store with clipboards to sign the purchasers’ families up for contingency-fee retainer agreements.

Perhaps an equally lucrative strategy would be to do the same at the Capital Airport in Beijing, at the gate where the Air Koryo flights leave for Pyongyang. Off-hand, I can’t think of a case of a company as negligently — even fraudulently — inducing a customer into buying an unsafe product without adequate safety warnings. The American Bar Association has written about the potential liability of travel agents** to their customers for placing them in dangerous situations:

The travel agent is considered the legal agent of the travel service provider for the product that is sold. That is, the travel agent is employed by or acts on behalf of the transportation companies. However, the recent growing trend is for courts to find that agents owe a fiduciary duty to the customer, that is, the travel agent is the legal agent of the customer, as well as being the legal agent of the provider of travel. This dual agency status of being an agent for both the traveler and the provider of travel has continued to grow as travel agencies have relied less and less on the business customer and more on the leisure market.

Generally, in the United States, a travel agent is liable for injuries caused to the traveler if the agent did not act with due diligence in investigating the safety of the provider of travel that is acting as its principal. Potential travelers in the leisure market (as opposed to business travelers) rely on the travel agent’s expertise and special knowledge of the cruise ship or hotel or resort that they are booking. In this situation there is a higher standard of care owed by the travel agent to the customer.

Of course, Miller’s alleged acts would be appear to be those of an unstable person. Could Uri be held liable for under such circumstances? If Uri owed Miller a fiduciary duty, it might have had a duty to make reasonable inquiries about his mental stability and his intentions on arriving in North Korea, and to refuse to sell tours to a person likely to endanger himself. Uri Tours, which seems to betray its own concerns about liability, is saying that it made those inquiries:

Uri Tours, the New Jersey-based company that organized Miller’s trip, said they assisted him in designing a custom tour. [L.A. Times, Steven Borowiec]

Well …. You can’t deny that Miller is now experiencing an aspect of life in North Korea that few tourists will ever see. Miller is, or so the usual cliches go, getting “a rare glimpse” and “exclusive access” to an places that few Westerners will be allowed to see. Indeed, ever since the AP gained exclusive access to Pyongyang, it has been relatively rare for them to write about that aspect of life in North Korea.

I could go on: Miller’s visit has opened new doors for foreigners in North Korea! (… and then locked them securely behind him). His visit has resulted in new diplomatic contacts! (… through the Swedish protecting power.) He has made new people-to-people contacts! (… through the food tray slot in his cell door.) He has given North Koreans new insight into life in America! (His interrogators report that we’re decadent, unpatriotic, and mentally unbalanced.)

Uri Tours chief executive Andrea Lee said that as a result of Miller’s arrest and detention, the company has instituted new measures to more thoroughly screen passengers before their tour. She said Uri Tours now routinely requests secondary contacts from prospective travelers and reserves the right to contact those references to confirm facts that are in question.

I can hardly wait to see what “new measures” Uri Tours will take to protect the safety of its customers. Not sending them to North Korea comes to mind. Meanwhile, the deceptive assurance that travel in North Korea is safe remains on Uri’s site, months after Miller’s arrest.

“Although we ask a series of tailored questions on our application form designed to get to know a traveler and his/her interests, it’s not always possible for us to foresee how a tourist may behave during a DPRK tour,” Lee said via email, using the initials for the nation’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Or, a court could find that tours of North Korea are, in light of past history, so inherently dangerous as to impose even greater legal duties on Uri and other tour companies.

No doubt, Uri had its customers sign liability waivers. Having reviewed dozens of such waivers and researched how state law treats them, I have a dim view of the legal protection they provide. While a signed waiver might be helpful to Uri’s defense, it would not provide a complete defense, especially if a court found that Uri’s warnings were negligent or knowingly deceptive.

I can already see the TV commercials: Have you been sentenced to hard labor in North Korea? Call the law firm ….

But of course, when Americans book tours of North Korea, Americans are the least likely to be the ones who suffer for it. You really have to be a soulless imbecile to do something as morally negligent as putting dollars into Kim Jong Un’s pocket.

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Update: This post was edited after publication.

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Update 2: Welcome, Washington Post readers.

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* In Korean, “Uri” means “our,” and in contemporary Korean society, has a strong ethno-nationalist connotation. For example, “Uri” was also the name of the left-wing nationalist political party of former President Roh Moo Hyun, who held office from 2003 to 2008, and who increased aid to North Korea dramatically. In his memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates described Roh as “anti-American” and “a little crazy.” In 2009, Roh committed suicide by leaping to his death from a cliff.

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** Because North Korea is no longer listed as a state sponsor of terrorism, it is immune from suit under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, even for acts that are transparently meant to use Americans as hostages to win diplomatic concessions. It would lose this immunity and become subject to suit, if it is re-listed as an SSOT because of its detentions of American citizens.

5 Comments

  1. Don’t think you drove your point home enough on how his experience in a North Korean jail would amount to anything near what regular gulag prisoners experience, because you forgot to leave out the fact he won’t be constantly kicked in the stomach for having a baby with a Chinese person, which means tainting the bloodline of the Master-Korean race.




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  2. Thanks for the darkly hilarious take on Miller’s arrest. But I wonder if this absurd tragedy will only increase North Korea’s glamour to Danger Freaks out for “adventure” travel?




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  3. Laura Ling and Euna Lee never went to the Gulag. The stayed in a pretrial detention center, even after their conviction. Kenneth Bae is apparently in a fairly mild prison. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens to Matthew Miller.




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  4. Any civilised country would have just ejected the man, and imposed a banning order if the offence is serious enough(Well technically people are arrested in NK for silly reasons anyway).




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  5. Since he (says he) used to support Wikileaks, I’m shocked, SHOCKED that Julian Assange hasn’t made efforts to help him in some way!




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