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A Brutal North Korean Crime That Must Not Be Forgotten

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

A Brutal North Korean Crime That Must Not Be Forgotten

Let’s not mince words: Otto Warmbier was an American kid who made one foolish mistake, one that should not have cost him his life. The North Korean regime arrested him on unjust grounds, possibly as a bargaining chip in negotiations, and ultimately tortured him to death. Josh Rogin of the Washington Post tracked down Warmbier’s roommate in North Korea, and offers a new, even more chilling account of events:

When Danny Gratton met Otto Warmbier in Beijing in late December 2015, they were on their first day of a tour to North Korea that only one of them would successfully complete. On the tour’s last day, Gratton was the only Westerner to see Warmbier detained by North Korean security services, the beginning of an 18-month ordeal for the 21-year-old American student, who finally returned to the United States in a coma this week.

Until now, Gratton has not spoken publicly about the case. He was never contacted by the U.S. government or the tour company that arranged the visit. His recollections form a part of the story that speaks to Warmbier’s innocence and further undermines the North Korean government’s version of events. His message is that Warmbier was an innocent victim of a cruel and evil regime and did nothing to warrant his sad fate.

“Otto was just a really great lad who fell into the most horrendous situation that no one could ever believe,” Gratton told me in an interview Thursday. “It’s just something I think in the Western world we just can’t understand, we just can’t grasp, the evilness behind that dictatorship.”

If you’re part of the subculture that never rejected the concept of evil, perhaps this isn’t that shocking. If you study history, the existence of evil isn’t shocking either. And if you’ve studied anything about the insanely brutal regime that rules North Korea, then no, this isn’t that surprising, either.

Gratton said that in the four days they spent together, Warmbier never said anything about a banner and that he saw zero evidence that Warmbier was planning any such act — quite the opposite. The first Gratton heard of the alleged attempted theft was when it was mentioned in news reports weeks later. Gratton and Warmbier weren’t together 24 hours each day, but they traveled together during the day and hung out each night.

“I’ve got nothing from my experiences with him that would suggest he would do something like that,” he said. “At no stage did I ever think he was anything but a very, very polite kid.”

Warmbier’s unjust murder should not have occurred. The North Koreans should not have tortured him, and should never have detained him. If he really did tear down the banner, this is the sort of manner that is resolved with a fine in most countries.

As mentioned earlier, Warmbier made one mistake: going to North Korea. There is no good reason for any American citizen to go to a land where they can be arrested at any time for any reason and tortured to death. Curiosity, charitable impulses, the desire to reach across a divide and see a place that few others dare – none of them are worth your life in the eyes of your loved ones. Do not go to North Korea. Do not go to North Korea. Do not go to North Korea.

Affinity magazine is an online, teen-written magazine that last night offered an astonishingly tone-deaf assessment: “Watch whiteness work. He wasn’t a “kid” or “innocent” you can’t go to another country and try to steal from them. [sic] Respect their laws.” (I wonder if that writer would extend the “respect their laws” approach to illegal immigrants, protesters who refuse lawful orders, and drug users.)

Still, presuming this is written by a teenager, we ought to tone down the outrage and attempt to illuminate this corner of the world that has probably escaped their attention.

The reason you’ll see adults referring to Warmbier as a ‘kid’ is because most of us over 21 look back at our 21st year and marvel at everything we thought we knew and everything we later realized we still had to learn. We had adult bodies but not necessarily adult judgment. Plenty of us made foolish decisions at age 21 or a little before or a little after, but none of those foolish decisions warranted such pain and death.

Warmbier’s guilt cannot be taken for granted, considering what we know of the arbitrary North Korean justice system. The regime sentenced him to fifteen years hard labor. His confession was beaten out of him; he claimed that he stole the banner on behalf of the United States government. The Obama administration had no qualms about accusing the North Korean regime of arresting Warmbier for political purposes, in other words, as a negotiating pawn.

There’s no shortage of places to read and hear about the brutality, cruelty and paranoia of the North Korean regime. Begin with John J. Miller’s interview with Melanie Kirkpatrick, author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad and Jay Nordlinger’s profile of defector Jung Gwang-il. The editors assessed “a small, hopelessly isolated prison-state that suffers from perpetual food shortages, crushing poverty, Zimbabwe-style inflation, and a cartoonishly severe electricity problem, [that] is nonetheless able to summon the rapt attention of the United States whenever it chooses.” Move on to Victor Davis Hanson on the limits of deterrence.

Then, once you know the regime and its character, ask yourself if you still feel Warmbier was so wrong, and whether the laws of that brutal, thuggish regime are so worthy of respect.