Mr. Otto Frederick Warmbier passed away on June 19, 2017. When he visited North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, North Korean authorities arrested and put him on trial. Warmbier was convicted for the theft of a propaganda banner, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Then the story turns as chilling as it gets: he suffered severe brain damage for an unknown cause in North Korean prison and fell in coma; North Korean officials blamed botulism for the coma, and decided to send him back to his home on humanitarian grounds; six days after returning to his home in Ohio, he died; and US physicians found no evidence of botulism.
I cannot help but mention the disgust I felt when some Americans did not criticized the government with one of the poorest human rights records but the maltreated American. They feel quite gratified when a ‘white male’ was abused in North Korea. I guess (and I hope) the reason they are so heartless is only because they do not know very well how cruel the North Korean regime is. Perhaps they should think outside the box of Edward Said-esque colonialism presuming “white arrogance.” For example, the Affinity Magazine insisted, “He (Warmbier) should have respect North Korean law.” Although I really want ask whether the LGBT-defending Affinity Magazine would respect the anti-LGBT laws in Russia, I should move on because I find some doubtful aspects of the death of Otto Warmbier.
First and foremost, it is highly questionable whether the theft of a banner was the real charge on Warmbier. The sentence – 15 years of hard labor – is almost equal to a death sentence, given the extremely short life expectancy of a prisoner under the general North Korean prison conditions. Such heavy penalty for theft is excessive even by the North Korean standards because, of course with a right amount of bribe, theft is not even considered as a misdemeanor. Furthermore, a banner itself is not a highly valued property at all; you can find many North Korean posters and banners for sale on eBay.
Choi Sung-ryong, a representative of the Families of People Abducted to North Korea, revealed to the Kyodo News that Otto Warmbier’s real charge was wrapping his shoes in a state-run newspaper carrying Kim Jong-un’s photograph. It sealed the American college student’s fate when North Korean officials figured out the photograph of their Supreme Leader were tainted with the dirt from the shoes. In North Korea, even the slightest damage to the images of the so-called divine Baekdu Bloodline is not tolerated. It is strictly prohibited to print the scared photographs of the leaders on common banners and posters whereas only Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea, can carry the sacred photographs. Warmbier simply did with the Rodong Sinmun what anyone from a free country would do with an outdated newspaper, but it happened to be one of the most serious crimes in North Korea.
To analyze the context behind the horrendous maltreatment of Warmbier, we should understand that Kim Jong-un is unleashing the reign of terror unlike his father Kim Jong-il who often used patronage to unite his inner circle. The third ruler of North Korea is paranoid about any possible internal challenge; he initiated the purge from the execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, and even executed some of his top commanders, for example Hyon Yong-chol, over trifles such as falling asleep during his speech. In other words, the North Korean regime had to execute Warmbier to send a message to its potential dissenters, “Don’t you dare challenge the authority of the Supreme Leader. Even an US citizen is not safe.”
I personally believe the severe injury on Warmbier’s brain was neither an accident nor a misfortune; it was a work by North Korean torturers who had already experimented numerous methods on numerous human bodies. Kim Jong-un decided to execute the American to consolidate his personality cult, but simultaneously he knew it would be too risky to kill him on the North Korean soil because the US government would definitely retaliate. Therefore, North Korean killing experts carefully designed the American’s death, damaging his brain so badly that his body had slowly lost its functions until he finally died in the States.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a terrible oxymoron: it is not a democratic republic but a cult group where damaging the image of its leader is punishable by brain damage. Unfortunately, the Warmbier case is just a tip of a iceberg. The North Korean regime has persecuted tens of thousands of people to serve only one purpose: solidifying Kim Jong-un’s power. Let’s not shift our focus from human rights to other political issues because we should unite to stand against North Korea’s human rights abuses regardless of one’s political stance. If you believe it is still possible to reach mutual understanding with North Korea, please think again because it is a delusive dream – you are warned.