Otto Warmbier was a victim of capitalism

The Secret State. The Hermit Kingdom. The Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea. – Lupine Tours

Over the past few decades, as travel has become more accessible to millions around the world, and as those destinations once thought of, in the West at least, as ‘remote’ (Nepal, Myanmar, Colombia) have become increasingly easier to travel to, the ‘frontier’ of international tourism has moved farther and farther away. Countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and even North Korea are now being marketed by tourist companies as exotic destinations that can provide travellers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The recent death of Otto Warmbier makes a compelling case for the dangers of such travel, and raises concerns about the industry profiting from this kind of tourism.

In 2015, Warmbier was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labour for stealing a propaganda poster while on tour of North Korea. He slipped into a coma soon after his imprisonment – many accused North Korean authorities of torturing him in prison – and, after seventeen months in captivity, he died back in the United States, where he’d been transported after it was clear he was not going to recover. Many have blamed Warmbier for his fate. But we should be thinking about how his death makes him a victim of late capitalism, and a tourism industry that markets oppression as a travel ‘experience’ – as the last great frontier for thrill-starved Westerners.

As we know, travel to North Korea, a country under authoritarian rule, is extraordinarily restricted. While the state has opened its borders further to Chinese Nationals (it share borders with China and Russia), travel by citizens of other nations is limited. North Korea has provided licences for only a few dozen international travel companies, who work closely with the government to operate fully guided tours of the country’s sites. Visitors can, for example, see the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun and the Koryo Museum in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang, visit the markets of the North Eastern city of Rason, or even participate in the annual Pyongyang marathon. But foreign visitors are not allowed to travel without a state-approved guide (as in Guy Delisle’s graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea or Anna Broinowski’s documentary Aim High in Creation), and are permitted to stay in only one hotel in the capital, Pyongyang. The constraints are many, including strict rules about what tourists can and cannot take photos of, what they can and cannot see, and what questions can be asked of guides.

With these restrictions in place, tour companies have established a unique pitch for visitors wishing to travel to this ‘Hermit Kingdom’. Otto Warmbier, for example, travelled with Young Pioneer Tours, a company that specialises in trips to North Korea, but also organises tours to Afghanistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Chernobyl, Cuba, Antarctica and Eritrea. On its website it advertises itself as ‘budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,’ with all tours promising an ‘ethos of fun, thrill seeking and adventure at a great price’.

Thrill-seeking within safe boundaries, in other words, which is, of course, highly problematic: what kind of thrills are envisaged in a war-ravaged country currently still at war, or in some of the world’s most oppressive regimes? The website of Young Pioneer Tours used to state that ‘North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit’, which has now been removed, because it turns out that the privileges of being an international tourist don’t always shield you from the horror or oppression you’re allegedly there to witness or defy.

It is for this reason – the privilege of being a white, American tourist – that some have blamed Warmbier himself for what he experienced at the hands of the North Korean state. Professor Kathy Dettwyler from the University of Delaware, for instance, stated that Warmbier ‘got exactly what he deserved’. In other places online, Dettwyler said that Warmbier was a ‘spoiled, naïve, arrogant’ student who ‘never had to face the consequences of his actions’.

A potentially even more radical response came from Asian-American blogger Ranier Maningding, who said he had no sympathy for Warmbier, primarily because of the movie The Interview (a film I haven’t seen but which many have accused of being extremely racist). After discussing how anti-racist activists demanded that the production of the film not go ahead, Maningding writes:

Nah. We made a movie about North Korea anyways because ‘fuck political correctness and fuck those Korean g***ks, we’re Americans and we do what we want!’

Welp. Guess what?

Otto Warmbier, the White student sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster from a North Korean hotel lobby, also thought he could do whatever the fuck he wanted.

Maningding’s logic here makes it seem that Warmbier deserved what he got – fifteen years of hard labour and torture for breaking the laws of a foreign country by stealing a poster. But it is not justice for one ignorant American to visit a totalitarian state and finally experience the suffering that so many others experience.

On one level, the frustration at the level of sympathy Warmbier received from some quarters is understandable: it highlights how Western countries continue to ignore the plight of North Korean citizens, instead seeing the country solely as a security threat. It is also possible that Warmbier was, as Dettwyler argued, a ‘spoiled, naïve, arrogant’ student, who ‘never had to face the consequences of his actions’, and that his hubris contributed to his demise.

But there is something extremely twisted about converting this situation to a position that then says that Warmbier got what he deserved. The idea that anybody deserves 14 years imprisonment, likely torture, and death for stealing a poster is, frankly, absurd. And in the current context of prison abolition movements within the United States, it is particularly galling to see people celebrate the death of someone due to that very system, just because it occurred in another country, or because they thought the person a privileged idiot.

However, this is the discourse that is likely to result when we reduce oppression entirely to identity. The problem I have with these endless debates is that they pit individuals against each other – men vs women, white people vs people of colour, gays vs straights. It is a form of politics that eschews solidarity, isolating cultures, genders and sexualities into silos that must compete against each other. In such debates, the causes of oppression is placed at an individual level, not a systemic one, thus the sense that Otto Warmbier as an individual was, on some level, responsible for the oppression of North Koreans because he was ignorant enough to travel there looking for adventure.

But really, it should be the exploitative political and social systems – that is, the form of capitalism that sells travel to repressive regimes as exotic tourist experiences – under the microscope.

Yes, Otto Warmbier likely fell for the marketing of adventure in North Korea, and he definitely made stupid decisions while he was there, but that was what capitalism sold him. Instead of celebrating the deaths of others like petty ghouls, we should be building solidarity to fight against the real causes of oppressive states.

The truth is that despite his privileged American upbringing, Warmbier was a victim of an exploitative and barbaric system, and the way his life ended was tragic. Collectively resisting the forces of late capitalism – the ones that both sell oppression as tourism, and that destroys millions of lives through incarceration across the world while making an obscene profit – is far more useful than blaming or mocking people for their own deaths.


Image: Suntan Airport, North Korea / Stephan

Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer, climate and Greens campaigner and masters student from Brisbane. He has an interest in all things politics, but with a particular focus on the direction of left-wing movements. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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