The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

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 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 15 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.

What, One Drug Wasn’t Enough?

We will always admire her unforgettable performances, her grit, her spirit, her smile, and her openness about her difficulties in life. But is it okay to be a little angry at the late Carrie Fisher?

Carrie Fisher had cocaine, methadone, heroin and ecstasy in her system when she died in December, according to an autopsy report released Monday.

The coroner’s report listed sleep apnea as the primary cause of death, with drug intake as a contributing factor. The report stated that Fisher’s family objected to a full autopsy, and coroner’s investigators had access to limited toxicology specimens. The conclusions were based on toxicology results and an external examination of Fisher’s body.

If you take cocaine, methadone, heroin, ecstasy, and a slew of prescription drugs in a short period of time . . . just what do you think is going to happen? Even if you don’t think it’s going to be fatal . . . what do you think that’s going to do to your body?

I see all the flaws with the war on drugs. But the world has a significant number of people who achieve remarkable success and yet still feel an emptiness inside, and who are still consumed by anxieties, fears, isolation, alienation, and a sense that happiness eludes them even after they’ve achieved everything that others can only imagine. I suppose you could say drugs are so ubiquitous in Hollywood that they’re practically legalized already.

Get Out to Vote, Georgians

Polls are open in Georgia’s sixth congressional district. It’s so close, no one knows which pre-emptive spin to deploy. Former district resident Michael Graham offers his take:

It appears the GOP is likely to eke out a win. Kent points to analysis from the U.S. Elections Project showing that early voting by hardcore Republicans has exceeded that by core Democrats by about 20,000. In addition, a new poll by Opinion Savvy finds that 62 percent of those voting today plan to vote for Handel.

This doesn’t mean the race is over or that Ossoff can’t win. Everyone I spoke to in the district agreed that he has the passion and the momentum, thanks almost entirely to anti-Trump sentiment.

But the race has evolved (or perhaps “devolved”) into a traditional GOP vs. Dem campaign. Republicans have spent quite a bit of money on their own, much of it linking Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi. Their message: “Say ‘No’ To Pelosi’s ‘Yes Man.’ ” Pelosi is to Georgia Republicans what Trump is to Democrats — someone they love to vote against.

In the end, the slim GOP majority in the district is likely to be enough to carry the day. But either way, this election had nothing to do with picking a congressman and everything to do with picking sides.

ADDENDA: Thanks to everyone putting up with the experiment in new forms of the Jolt. I know some folks don’t like it. (Remember, give feedback to Russell at The aim is to make it more mobile-friendly and less likely to get caught in people’s spam filters. I know some folks don’t like clicking through to the site for portions, and that’s being discussed above my pay grade. Either way, thank you for reading and know that we’re listening.

I mean, Russ is listening.


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