Young Otto Warmbier is back from North Korea, where he had been a prisoner since 2015. The a 22-year-old University of Virginia student was finally returned from the Communist dictatorship in a coma, suffering from “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of his brain.” Doctors believe he had sustained his catastrophic brain injury sometime before April 2016.
His heartbroken parents are condemning North Korea and praising the Trump administration, which finally obtained his release. Someone, however, needs to make the crucial point that Otto’s fate was directly due to his own recklessness and bad judgment in engaging in conduct that frequently results in disaster, as well as international tensions and needless cost to U.S. taxpayers.
Otto signed up for a five-day tour of North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a Chinese company that advertises “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” There is a good reason your mother—and your father, and the U.S. State Department—would rather you stayed away from North Korea. The place is a hell-hole run by a power-mad lunatic, and it is not safe. Nobody put a gun to Otto Warmbier’s head and kidnapped him: he decided on his own to defy his government’s warnings, recent history and the sense god gave puppies to deliberately place himself in harm’s way, knowing that many, many similarly misguided citizens have become prisoners, propaganda tools, pawns or worse because they willfully placed themselves in similar peril as the people who decide to climb into tiger or lion enclosures at zoos.
Warmbier left on his “tour” in December , 2015. He would have had a chance to see “Bridge of Spies” by then: I wonder if he did. You will recall that the history-based plot involved am American student named Fred Pryor, who is one now a renowned comparative economists. Then, however, he was a graduate student in West Berlin who decided it would be a dandy idea to pass through the half-completed Berlin Wall in August, 1961 to attend a lecture and give a copy of his dissertation to an East Berlin economics professor. We know he’s a smart guy, but one would think that the fact that the East German government was in the process of sealing in its citizens as prisoners might have alerted him that this was not the time to go visiting.
Sure enough, Pryor was arrested, thrown in jail, and became a bargaining chip in the U-2/Gary Powers/Rudolph Abel negotiations. Had Otto Warmbier seen the film (which Pryor says misrepresents his part of the story), I would think he would have been a bit more resistant to a sales pitch that said, “This is a great time to visit beautiful North Korea!” Indeed, being 22, presumably literate and of sound mind, he should have had the knowledge and sense of self-preservation to resist that sales pitch even if he had never seen any movie in his whole life.
I have wondered what makes people do this kind of thing many times in the past, every time I’ve read about a a missionary who decides it makes perfect sense to go to Somalia, or dual citizenship travelers who decide to hang out in Iran rather than in a non-totalitarian country like the other place on their passports, or even Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who thought he would be welcomed by the Taliban and ended up an abused prisoner. These naive souls remind me of the inevitable peacenik or scientist in science fiction movies like “The Thing From Another World” who insist that a scary alien can be reasoned with, so they run up to the thing blathering, “We are your friends! You have nothing to fear!” and end up as Purina Monster Chow. I admit: I have never had any sympathy for these characters.
The real-life naifs who put themselves in harm’s way with international menaces cause real damage. Their government—ours— has to try to rescue them, and often negotiates deals that harm U.S. interests and security—as with the shrewd five terrorists for one deserter trade that crack negotiator Barack Obama approved to get Bergdahl back. Writing about egregious examples of U.S. citizens being insanely reckless and requiring elaborate and expensive rescues, I have advocated billing the irresponsible rescued, as in this case. The same holds should apply to citizens who ignore State Department warnings, like Otto, and happily jump into metaphorical tiger pits.
Otto Warmbier paid a terrible price for his recklessness, but that fact shouldn’t stop society from gleaning the same lesson from this tragedy as it would if Otto had returned hale and hardy, with wonderful photos of his trip. In the end, the problem wasn’t the tour company, or the res ipsa loquitur crazy tour, but the adult who placed his life and his nation’s interests at risk because he wanted an adventure, or something. That his personal consequences were horrible doesn’t improve or excuse the conduct that led to them.
In all the news accounts I read and watched since Otto returned, none had the courage or the integrity to mention this fact. As a result, the likelihood of another young man or women meeting the same fate is greater than it should be.