Pallbearers carry Otto Warmbier’s casket after his funeral at Wyoming High School in Wyoming, Ohio. The American college student died after being released from detention in North Korea. (John Sommers/Reuters)

Suki Kim is author of “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.”

The death of Otto Warmbier on Monday, only six days after being released by North Korea, is a tragedy in more ways than one. In January 2016, Warmbier, then a 21-year-old American college student, was arrested in Pyongyang for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, for which he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Upon his release, it was revealed that he had been in a coma for more than a year.

So what happened to Warmbier? North Korean authorities said that he had contracted botulism shortly after his trial in March 2016 and been given a sleeping pill from which he never woke up. Many disbelieve the official report and think that he might have been tortured and murdered.

In reality, we will never know the particulars. What I do know is that there is a dire lack of medical resources in North Korea, even for elites and foreigners. In 2011, I lived undercover for six months in Pyongyang, at a university teaching 20-year-old sons of North Korea’s elite. While I was there, an American teacher fell while hiking on a minder-led tour and was rushed to a foreigners-only hospital; doctors stitched his head with no anesthetics and gave him no antibiotics. The teacher returned to the United States, developed an infection and had to undergo emergency surgery.

North Korea is one of the poorest countries in the world, but its regime is also one of the world’s most brutal. It seems strange that Americans are shocked by the cruelty in Warmbier’s case when North Korea is repeatedly singled out for its crimes against humanity, which, according to the United Nations, have “no parallel in any other country in the contemporary world.” Perhaps the lack of this awareness explains why Americans also seem to believe that foreigners on a temporary visit to North Korea are immune to the travesty that exists there. Warmbier’s case is a stark reminder of North Korea’s complete disregard for human life.

Each year, about 5,000 Western tourists visit North Korea, of whom roughly a fifth are Americans. The United States is considering banning its citizens from going to North Korea as tourists, and the company that organized the tour for Warmbier’s trip has now halted serving Americans.

Tourism into North Korea is a troubling concept. While proponents argue that it could open doors for the isolated citizens of North Korea, it is doubtful how many average North Koreans do indeed get exposed to such initiatives, since the visitors in Pyongyang only get shown a few designated propaganda sites and are allowed to interact only with their minders. Although the tours are mostly safe, due to the fact that it is a virtual police state where everything is controlled by the regime, the real danger there is hidden and unpredictable. At any given moment, depending on the political climate, a foreigner could be intercepted by authorities and essentially used for ransom, which could cause a diplomatic nightmare in a complex geopolitical relationship involving China, Russia, the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Most of all, the real question on tourism to North Korea is an ethical one. Tourism is for individual enjoyment and generally a hobby for the privileged citizens of first-world nations. So what is there to enjoy in a gulag nation where 25 million citizens are held captive? Casually touring North Korea is akin to hiking at Auschwitz under the Nazis. The propaganda posters, one of which Warmbier had supposedly been trying to steal, might look souvenir-worthy to those who are naïve to their political contexts, but they are also the tools, like a swastika, with which the Great Leader regime enslaves its people. When I look at them, I see the blood of the Korean people who perished for generations and will continue to perish. Besides, there is another dark side to such tourism. Those visitors bring in about $43.6 million per year for the North Korean regime, which would use that to oppress its own people and strengthen its military and nuclear resources.

If such is not the very definition of “torture porn,” then what is?

The horror of the Warmbier case is not only about the inhumane treatment of an American by the North Korean regime but also about the political posturing of all of the nations involved. Trump immediately praised his administration by saying “at least we got him home,” blaming the Obama administration for failing to bring the captive out earlier. In actuality, nobody brought Warmbier home. North Korea held him, despite his unconscious condition, until a politically opportune moment and released him on “humanitarian” grounds to avoid the diplomatic fallout of an American citizen dying within its borders. (Currently three other Americans are being detained in North Korea.) Their tactic worked, since immediately after Warmbier’s death, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who is to travel to Washington next week for a meeting with Trump, used the occasion to declare that he hopes to meet with Kim Jong-un before the end of the year, although such a plan is nothing new but an expected advance of his policy of engagement with North Korea. Predictably Moon did little to elaborate on the predicament of his own citizens, at least six of whom are being detained in North Korea, never mind mentioning the 500 South Korean fishermen who have been abducted to the North since the war and are considered missing.

What Warmbier’s death reminds us of is the utter failure of diplomacy with North Korea, and that detaining an American citizen, for North Korea, works to its benefit. Warmbier was a young college student unaware of the depth of the danger he had unwittingly stepped into. Isn’t it then the job of his country to prevent future Warmbiers?