American student Otto Warmbier was imprisoned in North Korea for a year and a half for trying to steal a poster. He was finally was sent home in a coma and with severe brain damage, apparently sustained months earlier but left undisclosed by his jailers. Warmbier died six days after his return to the United States at age 22.
Now, another Warmbier has traveled to the Korean Peninsula — Otto’s father, Fred, who this week attended the Opening Ceremonies of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea as a guest of Vice President Pence.
It was a simultaneously compelling and confounding act. To return to the scene of such a loss in mourning, anger and defiance, to draw the world’s eyes to the outrages that have taken place there. How painful. How brave. How . . . risky.
The risk is not in what Fred Warmbier is doing by returning to Korea, but in how he may be seen. Otto’s father may want his son to be a symbol. But the nature of his escort risks turning him into a prop.
What’s the difference? Symbols stand for something. Props are used by someone. And the Trump administration, which hosted Warmbier, is made up of shameless instrumentalizers who have made clear that they stand for very little.
President Trump is, of course, a master of staging, with a facility for props of all kinds. The commander in chief is a television personality gone rogue, having leapfrogged into our politics with his showman’s skills (and few others) fully intact. His insistence on dramatics has swept up his closest associates — recall that Pence, once seen as the sober side of the ticket, starred in one of the most transparent political performances of the past year when he flew to Indianapolis for the purpose of walking out of an NFL game.
The State of the Union was the latest example of this Trumpian tendency, with citizen guests of honor deployed as stage dressing in support of Trump’s otherwise absurd vendettas. Already, the families present are remembered less for what they might have hoped to stand for — the honor due military veterans, in the case of 12-year-old flag bearer Preston Sharp, or children lost to gang violence, in the case of the grieving Cuevas and Mickens families — than the egregious uses Trump put them to: a rehashing of an old grudge against peacefully protesting football players, an ugly characterization of immigrants as dangerous criminals.
The Warmbier family was at the State of the Union, too, along with Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector. With the lifting of his crutches into the air as the North Korean regime was denounced by the president, Ji did, at least for a moment, pull viewers away from the spectacle of Trump’s self-applause and into a celebration of real determination and sacrifice in pursuit of freedom. The image was powerful, but afterward it was hard not to wonder about the substance: Trump’s travel ban prevents future North Korean defectors from coming to the United States, even as he exhibits them to press his case.
In South Korea, Warmbier sat silently while the vice president lauded his witness and refused potential opportunities to negotiate with the North Korean regime. He went largely unnoticed in a separate box as Pence ostentatiously let an opportunity to speak directly to Kim Jong Un’s powerful sister, Kim Yo Jong, pass him by. All strange, given that the administration has shown no qualms about engaging other perpetrators of human rights abuses — Duterte, al-Sissi, Erdogan, Putin — around the world.
Warmbier’s presence at the Opening Ceremonies could, like Ji’s protest, have broken through the theatrics of the Trump delegation and stood as a symbol in and of itself. It could have served as a profound reminder to the world of the massive human rights abuses perpetrated by the North Korean regime. No doubt that’s why he went, as a way to honor his lost son. “North Korea is not a victim. They’re terrorists,” Warmbier has said. This is a choice his family had every right to make.
But when we look at Warmbier, with Pence as his host, do we think about his son? Do we think of the tens of thousands languishing in Kim Jong Un’s gulags? Or do we think about Trump?
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