Pyongyang, North Korea — In the popular mind, there may be no more forbidding destination on earth. I’ve never had as many people ask if I was serious when I mentioned I was heading to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea last month.
In fact, I had no worries. I was going as a guest of the Institute for American Studies of the Foreign Ministry. I also understood what not to do.
Failing at the latter has proved to be the undoing of a number of Americans, most spectacularly collegian Otto Warmbier, who died after being released by North Korea in a coma. Three other Americans remain in custody, along with several South Koreans and other foreign nationals. But their plight, though tragic, is not a good reason to ban travel to the DPRK.
Some attributed Warmbier’s release to the Trump administration’s efforts, though it had no more leverage than its predecessor. While in the North I asked if the government sent Warmbier home as a conciliatory gesture to Washington. The unequivocal response was that it was strictly a humanitarian matter.
Otto Warmbier’s family blamed the Obama administration for failing to win his release, but the decision always was Pyongyang’s. Why the DPRK released him was impossible to know for sure: perhaps Kim Jong-un decided that holding a comatose prisoner was a political liability.
The cases of Warmbier and other Americans, some going back years, are uniformly awful: people punished for actions that should not be considered criminal. But the DPRK is not alone in penalizing foreigners for dubious offenses. The main difference may be that Pyongyang, more than most other “hostile” states, sees potential political value in jailed Americans.
Still, a thousand Americans visit annually and don’t get arrested. Young Pioneer Tours, which organized the trip on which Warmbier traveled, pointed out that it had brought in more than 8000 other travelers without incident.
On my plane entering North Korea I sat next to a British citizen who was making his third tourist visit. The worst trouble he had was being told to delete photos deemed inappropriate.
A number of humanitarian groups, some explicitly religious, work in the officially atheist nation. I met several NGO staffers and volunteers in the midst of a lengthy sojourn providing medical care. None had ever ended up in jail.
In fact, arrests aren’t random but, in North Korea’s view, for cause. DPRK officials say they punish intentional, not accidental, rules violations.
I chatted with the head of a Western NGO active in the North who said her group had looked into the cases of those jailed: all had committed some illegal act. Obviously that doesn’t mean their conduct warranted punishment. But they put themselves under the DPRK’s authority, to ill effect.
Warmbier’s case looks extreme even by North Korean standards. Some knowledgeable Westerners suggested that there was more to his case, perhaps involving an insult to the North Korean system and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. The poster incident merely became the cover story.
Some in Congress want to ban travel to the North. But a free society should protect the liberty to travel and explore. This right shouldn’t be limited without compelling justification.
Visiting the DPRK has educational value. Those who spend time in North Korea are more likely to understand it. Since the U.S. government lacks a diplomatic presence; American visitors are the best alternative.
Going to the North also causes those living in free societies to better appreciate their systems. I left thankful that I lived in a society which, however imperfectly, protected individual liberty.
Watching, meeting, and especially working with people who don’t fit the official stereotype provide North Koreans with an education as well. Knowledge is transmitted, curiosity is aroused. Engagement is no panacea, but is more likely than isolation to encourage Pyongyang’s positive evolution.
Banning Americans from visiting the North would be especially perverse when the rest of the world remained free to go. Congress should think how best to transform the North’s people as well as government over the long-term.
We may never know what happened to Otto Warmbier. His tragic case reminds us that visiting North Korea requires special caution. But that’s no reason to block outsiders from going.
They have much both to learn and teach. Until the DPRK changes, individual travelers may end up being most important and perhaps only ambassadors to North Korea from democratic countries around the world.