I can’t stop thinking about Otto Warmbier. And the more I think about him, the more I remember all the smart people I’ve heard over the years explaining why the North Korean regime — the regime that “brutalized and terrorized” Otto, as his father said last week — shouldn’t be challenged or destabilized.
Warmbier is a smart and immensely likable kid who graduated from high school in 2013 in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio, and enrolled in the University of Virginia. Toward the end of 2015 he was traveling in China when he signed up, out of curiosity and a sense of adventure, for a four-day New Year’s trip to North Korea. As the rest of his tour group departed from Pyongyang International Airport on Jan. 2, 2016, Warmbier was detained.
Two months later he showed up on North Korean television confessing to his supposed offense: trying to pilfer a propaganda poster from his hotel to bring home as a souvenir. We don’t know if the coerced confession was truthful or made up. Even if truthful, the resulting sentence of 15 years at hard labor was obscene.
Warmbier, who is now 22, wasn’t seen or heard from again until last week, when the Trump administration managed to secure his release and fly him home to Ohio. Only it turns out that Warmbier is incapacitated, and apparently has been for almost his entire time in captivity.
“His neurological condition can be best described as a state of unresponsive wakefulness,” said Daniel Kanter, a University of Cincinnati Medical Center neurologist who examined Otto. “He shows no signs of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or awareness of his surroundings. He has not spoken. He has not engaged in any purposeful movements or behaviors. . . . This study showed extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain.”
We don’t know whether North Korean guards beat Warmbier into a coma or whether his abuse and maltreatment came in some other form. What we do know is that a healthy young man flew to Pyongyang, was unjustly seized and then became lost to the world — with no one bothering to inform his parents.
Here’s something else we know: Thousands — no, hundreds of thousands — of Koreans have been subjected to similar criminal abuse as Otto Warmbier suffered at the hands of North Korea’s Stalinist regime. In 2014, a U.N. commission reported that “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea . . .
“The use of torture is an established feature of the interrogation process in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the U.N. commission found. “Starvation and other inhumane conditions of detention are deliberately imposed on suspects. . . . Persons who are found to have engaged in major political crimes are ‘disappeared,’ without trial or judicial order, to political prison camps (kwanliso). . . . Their families are not even informed of their fate if they die. . . .
“The inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide. The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades. The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.”
Translation: The gulag of the Soviet Union, the concentration camps of Nazi Germany — they have been roughly replicated in North Korea. The whole world knows this — the U.N. report is a public document — and yet the regime lives on. How can that be?
It turns out that plenty of people find the regime repugnant but convenient. China’s Communist rulers are first in that line: Kim Jong Un annoys them, but they do not want a unified, pro-Western Korea on their border. South Korea has a Ministry of Unification but also many citizens who do not want the responsibility or expense of bringing 25 million impoverished North Koreans up to their living standard (South Korea’s population is about 50 million).
For its part, the United States is more interested in negotiating an end to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program than helping its captive millions. “Our goal is not regime change,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in April.
And so, though the country is backward and totally dependent on outside assistance, the regime lives on. The prison camps endure. And Otto Warmbier’s heartbroken mother sits by his side, hoping to coax some sign of consciousness from her damaged boy.
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