One American tragedy, millions of North Korean statistics

The idea that foreign tourists in North Korea could escape the evil they help, however minimally, to propagate, was never sustainable. Tourism in North Korea reduces the physical and mental slavery of totalitarianism to a circus performance and its subjects to zoo animals. It doesn’t only endanger the tourist, it plays some unquantifiable role in sustaining that horrid system, and in endangering the lives of people from Seoul to Seattle to Aleppo by giving cash to a regime obsessed with the capacity to terrorize and destroy life. To tour North Korea is a morally shallow act for which some just punishment is warranted. That just punishment is a week in a North Korean jail, one day as a global Twitter laughingstock, and a one-way ticket back to one’s angry family and laughing friends. It was not this. There was nothing just in this.

The specifics of Mr. Warmbier’s condition were not known. His family was told that he had contracted botulism and had been given a sleeping pill, causing him to slip into a coma, according to the people briefed on the situation, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter. But American officials suspect his condition is the result of his treatment at North Korean hands, given the record of the brutal treatment of past prisoners there.


A senior American official said the United States obtained intelligence reports in recent weeks indicating that Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss intelligence and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there had been earlier concerns that Mr. Warmbier had died as a result of the beatings.

A second person who was involved in early discussions with North Koreans about American prisoners said Mr. Warmbier’s family at one point told friends they believed the North had killed their son. [N.Y. Times]

Let anyone forget, this was Otto Warmbier at his show trial. As lawyers say, res ipsa loquitur.

Yes, initial reports are often wrong. Rumors of dark and unknowable things from inside the world’s most opaque regime should be treated with skepticism. Mr. Warmbier is at a hospital now, where the doctors will examine him for evidence of torture. In due course, we’ll have medical evidence of what really happened, and whether Mr. Warmbier will ever walk or speak again. But clearly, the people who had him in their custody did something to him to reduce him to the comatose state in which he has lingered for a year. And whatever happened to Mr. Warmbier happened to him at a time when he was held without legitimate justification. Even allowing for differences of culture and government, there is no system of justice in which vandalizing a poster (if Mr. Warmbier did that) warrants two months in jail, much less a year and a half, much less a 15-year sentence to hard labor.

The editors of the Washington Post write that “the harm done to an innocent student is the result of North Korea’s odious practice of seizing Americans to use as political pawns.” It’s beyond serious question that Mr. Warmbier was held as a hostage, and by extension, this suggests that the charges against three other Americans in North Korean custody are also fabricated and their punishments arbitrary. 

The Post calls Mr. Warmbier’s treatment “outrageous behavior even by the standards of one of the world’s most vicious and isolated regimes,” says that “it should not go unpunished,” and calls for more sanctions, including secondary sanctions. I obviously agree with the latter statements, but not the former (we’ll turn to it later).

As to the punishment, one appropriate option would be to return North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, despite the fact that Mr. Warmbier’s torture does not meet the legal definition (it was done by a state, not by clandestine agents or subnational groups). There are plenty of other reasons, including the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, that would make a re-designation of North Korea well-grounded in evidence and law.

And yes, Congress should enact a travel ban. Depending on how it’s drafted, an added feature of a travel ban could be to wreck Moon Jae-In’s addlebrained, sanctions-busting plans to reopen Kumgang or share the Olympics with North Korea. And yes, the Warmbier family’s lawsuit against the reckless and unethical Young Pioneer Tours, which continues to say that travel to North Korea is safe, and which has boasted that the arrests of tourists are good for business, should be an extinction-level event. 

I disagree with the Post, however, when it says that Mr. Warmbier’s treatment was “outrageous behavior” by North Korean standards. On the contrary, by North Korean standards it was entirely ordinary. The reason why tourism to North Korea is immoral is the very fact for North Koreans, brutality is an everyday fear, whether they’re market traders being extorted and beaten by corrupt MSS officers, women refugees who are beaten after being repatriated by China, women in “Kangan” Province who are raped by soldiers with impunity, or the child prisoners in places like Camp 16, where death rates may be as high as 20 percent each year.

Is Mr. Warmbier’s fate more inhumane than the slow, agonizing death of my friend Jinhae Jo’s baby brother, who starved to death in her arms so that Kim Il-Sung could have a new mausoleum and his son could have nuclear weapons? According to the U.N. Commission of Inquiry, that slow, agonizing process repeated itself perhaps two million times for North Koreans, out of our sight. For every person who starved to death from Pyongyang’s priorities, countless others were traumatized by the loss of them.

What Mr. Warmbier experienced is not even the worst treatment North Korea has meted out to foreigners in recent years. Contrast it to the kidnapping and slow starvation of U.S. resident Kim Dong-shik from China to North Korea, where he died far from his wife and children. Or Megumi Yokota, kidnapped from the shores of her home country and held in North Korea until she finally gave in to despair and committed suicide. Or the brave dissidents and human rights activists like Patrick Kim, stabbed by North Korean agents with poisoned needles.

It is as if the greater the scale of the horrors, the less they affect us. The more we ascribe them to differences of policy, nation, and culture. The more arguments we summon to dull their moral relevance. One death is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic from a dying star in a distant galaxy. As we look on one tragedy, let’s remember the statistics, too.

[Statistics, buried in the hills near Hamhung, North Korea]

That will better inform us how to respond to all of these tragedies. North Korea’s is a system dedicated to the proposition that all men must submit to evil. The sooner we grasp that all of these statistics are tragedies, the sooner we will draw the appropriate conclusions about how to respond to them.


  1. I wish for the quickest recovery for Otto and his family. This is what happens when you leave one of the most civilized country in the world by going to a crazy “country” wherein an alleged prank or vandalism can result in a “life in a coma” sentence.

    Why we don’t immediately assign DPRK as a state sponsoring terrorism is what makes our country one of the best but not the smartest. When you see Kim Jong Un killing and oppressing millions of his own people, no one should be surprised by how he treats an oblivious Yankee who is stupid enough to show up in Pyongyang.

    The Congress should enact a Travel Ban today.


  2. O.K. , let’s see if I got this right:

    1. Kim Yong Nam died of a heart attack in Malaysia?
    2. Otto Warmbier is in a coma from botulism? After taking a sleeping pill?? In a state where starvation is both national policy and a way of life???

    If North Korean pathologists could speak Latin as well as lawyers, maybe their explanations would be more convincing. Oh, and I do hope that the Korea Central News Agency satisfactorily explains to Dennis Rodman what “wicked black monkey” really means!


  3. Not likely to be a recovery for Otto Warmbier. His brain was deprived of oxygen for too long, and it happened over a year ago. God damn these savages. First they humiliated him, then they basically killed him. This evil will end some day.


  4. My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from me, nor is their sin concealed from my eyes

    Jeremiah 16:17


  5. North Korea should not be recognized as nation, but as a vast brutal prison where a bunch of criminals are keeping millions of innocent people as prisoners. I’m ashamed that my country (Sweden) honor those terrorists with an embassy. If we really believed that we could have helped the Americans, the first question that we (the Swedes) should have asked those bastards should of course have been. “Is Otto alive? We need proof, otherwise there’s no point in discussing with you”. That question was never asked. That confirmation from the criminals in charge was never demanded.