There is a reason why worldwide whimsical leisure travel is associated with one of the seven deadly sins. Wanderlust can get you killed.
Facebook is where I road test a lot of jokes and I upset people when I wondered out loud if the American university student tortured and killed (for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster) in North Korea would win a Darwin Award. The Darwin Awards honor those who accidentally improve the human genome by removing themselves from the human race. Previous honorees include a man in a wheelchair who, after an elevator closed on him, ran into the elevator doors three times before breaking through and plunging down the shaft to his death.) I want to be clear that I do not think the university student should win a Darwin Award, just nominated for one. I don't think he would mind since he liked collecting trophies.
Long and the short of it is, offensive or not, it opened a conversation that needs to be had about international travel in general and North Korea specifically.
The student’s death was a horrible tragedy he did not deserve. I do not believe that he is guilty of stealing the propaganda poster. I believe he followed all of the rules and regulations to the best of his ability. However, this is not a baby getting eaten by an alligator at Disneyland type tragedy. This is the equivalent of going bungee jumping in Nazi Germany or Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime and being detained because an officer doesn’t like your face. Is it justified? Absolutely not. Is it consistent of the totalitarian regime that routinely tortures and kills it’s own people? You bettcha. In fact, this university student was given some medical care. Plus, the regime did not imprison two other generations of the university student’s family, as is usual in North Korea when a person is convicted of a crime. This could be considered special treatment compared to the nameless and countless victims under this regime. It wasn’t long ago the dictator had his uncle, brother and mistress killed. He also had his defense chief executed for falling asleep during a military exercise.
I blame movies like Team America: World Police and The Interview for satirizing a country they didn’t fully understand to an audience that doesn’t really understand what kind of terror and danger North Koreans live under every single day. Both movies did a fantastic job of making the leaders of North Korea seem vain, petty and harmless, at least to Americans. Unfortunately, the leaders are only two of those things to people in North Korea. I bet the Average American doesn’t know 80 people were executed in 2013 for offenses such as drinking alcohol, watching T.V., playing music, communicating with the outside world, having Western media, complaining about a dead spouse, mourning insincerely and going online.
North Korea has always been the butt of jokes for as long as I can remember. When the internet was in it’s toddler years, images of primary school age children playing xylophones like their life depended on it were hysterical until I found out these children’s lives actually did depend on their performance. A friend of mine who visited North Korea talked about watching a circus with no safety equipment for the trapeze artists. The stadium circus floor was kept dark so that if an entertainer were to fall to their death, the show would go on. When things go wrong on the tour, North Korean tour guides may lose their lives as well as their jobs.
One person very angry about my joke argued “The university student was an adventurer!” An adventure, by definition, is a hazardous undertaking with an uncertain outcome. He had an adventure alright, a disastrous adventure that was 100% avoidable. I think it’s easy to forget that safe travel is a historically recent development that should not be taken lightly.
Had the university student been in the country for humanitarian reasons, I would have more sympathy and the student would have been more informed and trained about how horrible life is in that secluded and impoverished country. He would know that any money spent there as a tourist, would most likely be spent on their nuclear program or in a way that would oppress and torture it’s people even more.
I’ve met people who want to go to North Korea to “see the crazies”. The North Koreans citizens are not crazy. They are under an oppressive totalitarian regime, struggling to survive. If you go there and get detained, don’t be surprised when you can’t negotiate with the crazy regime.
I don’t know why Dennis Rodman is in North Korea unless he thinks he is hanging out with Psy. Whatever friendship he has with the leader there, it is on very shaky ground.
I suppose having lived in Japan for 16 years gives me a unique view point. In Japan, it’s fairly common knowledge that people disappear, having been kidnapped and forced to work in North Korea. 13 years ago, North Koreans kidnapped American David Sneddon while he was hiking in China. He is now Kim Jung Un’s English tutor. He has not been in contact with his family since he was abducted. The day the dictator doesn’t like David anymore, he will be executed. This has got to be the worst ESL job ever.
If you really want to meet North Koreans, seek out those who have escaped or have family in North Korea. Donate money to organizations that help escapees relocate and adapt to their new homes and culture. Read books by North Korean refugees who are now free to tell you the truth. Go to South Korea and talk to anyone about their three years of mandatory military service and why it’s necessary. Don’t let wanderlust kill you and those around you. (There is evidence that Otto Warmbier, the university student tourist, was mistaken for another tourist group member who was separated from the tour, getting lost for an entire night. This other British tourist returned to the hotel around the same time the propaganda poster in a forbidden corridor was reportedly stolen.)
I’d love to live in a world where everyone can travel freely. We don’t even live in a world where Americans can travel freely, just ask Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Tamir Rice, Jerame Reid, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, or Philandro Castile. Wait, you can’t because they are dead, murdered because a cop didn’t like the way they looked in the land of the “free” and the home of the “brave”.