Let’s pause for a moment to consider some essential truths about the regime in North Korea. A little more than a year ago, the government there arrested a visiting American student named Otto Warmbier. The charge? He had allegedly tried to steal a propaganda poster. Even if he did commit this heinous offense, it’s also likely that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un wanted a bit of additional leverage during a moment of tension with the United States, and Warmbier made a good target. North Korea has often held Americans as hostages in the past.
But this time, matters took a terrible turn. Not long after his captors forced Warmbier to make a bizarre public confession, he disappeared. The Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang who handle such matters on Washington’s behalf couldn’t even get a hint of what was happening. Then, after long months of silence, the North Koreans suddenly announced they were sending Warmbier home — in a coma. American doctors diagnosed extensive brain trauma. And now we learn that he has died, at age 22.
Think about it: Kim’s minions realized that their captive American was brain-dead — so they decided to unload the responsibility onto his parents. That in itself is appalling enough. But the question remains: What did they do to this kid to create such horrific damage? Why did they single him out for such barbaric treatment?
We’ll probably never know. In his novel “1984,” George Orwell invented the notion of the “memory hole,” a place where uncomfortable truths go to die. North Korea, the closest equivalent in today’s world to a genuine Orwellian dystopia, is one giant memory hole. Millions of people there — yes, millions — have been consumed by its state-created famines, its purges, its frenzied political campaigns. Few other regimes in the world have shown such maniacal contempt for their own citizens. The North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk, who grew up in a concentration camp, once told me how inmates who tried to supplement their meager diets with rats were brutally punished — for “theft of state property.”
My heart goes out to Warmbier’s family. Neither he nor they deserved any of this. But at least — miserable consolation that it is — he will be remembered. The same cannot be said for the legions of North Koreans who populate their country’s mass graves, faceless and forgotten. As we mourn the fate of this poor American, let’s spare a thought for them as well.