Saturday, June 24, 2017

20/20: Otto Warmbier (ABC-TV, aired June 23, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Otto Warmbier

The Yanggakdo International Hotel, Pyongyang: don’t go to the fifth floor!

At 10 p.m. last night I watched an unusually good episode of the ABC-TV news show 20/20, which is usually a pretty sensationalistic true-crime show but in this case acquired a rare degree of power, dignity and genuine tragedy from their choice of subject: Otto Warmbier, the young man who graduated from high school in the small town of Wyoming, Ohio who, as second in his class, was invited to speak at his high school graduation. He enrolled in the University of Virginia and spent most of the school breaks traveling, first as an exchange student at the London School of Economics and then to Israel (his mother was Jewish) and China. While in China he learned about a tour group called Young Pioneers that ran trips to North Korea. For some reason Warmbier thought it would be fun to ring in 2016 with a five-day New Year’s trip to the Hermit Kingdom, and he signed up. Like all official tours to North Korea, the trip was extensively chaperoned by government “minders” who made sure the tourists saw only what the North Korean government wanted them to see — well-stocked stores, happy children singing group songs whose melodies were of stupefying banality while the lyrics were specifically anti-American (apparently that bizarre opening sequence in the film The Interview, in which a bunch of North Korean kids sing a melodically trashy song whose lyrics go, “[We] wish … for the United States to explode in a ball of fiery hell. May they be forced to starve and beg, and be ravaged by disease. May they be helpless, poor and sad and cold! They are arrogant and fat. They are stupid and they’re evil. May they drown in their own blood and feces. Die America, die. Oh please won’t you die? It would fill my tiny little heart with joy,” isn’t that far off from the reality), ordinary North Koreans going about their business on the squeaky-clean streets of Pyongyang and the famous unison marches with people kicking, goose-stepping and waving things in unison. 

But the Young Pioneers also advertised their North Korea trips as an outlaw experience — “This is the trip your parents don’t want you to take!” they said, while insisting that the trips were perfectly safe for Americans despite the fact that North Korea and the U.S. are still technically in a state of war with each other (the cease-fire that ended the Korean War in 1953 was just that, not an official peace treaty) and the North Korean government had decided, just before Warmbier went on his trip, that from now on they were going to treat any Americans arrested in their country as prisoners of war, not as ordinary criminals — which meant denying them even the pathetic excuses for due process that ordinarily exist under the North Korean judicial system. The 20/20 episode vividly depicts not only North Korea’s isolation but also its backwardness, including showing the famous satellite photo of the region at night, in which North Korea exists as an inky blackness in between the vividly lit vistas of China and South Korea: there are virtually no electric lights on in North Korea in the wee hours. It also covers the history of the North Korean regime, from its founding after World War II by dictator Kim Il Sung (still enshrined in North Korea’s constitution as the “Eternal President,” as well as the “Great Leader,” even though he’s been dead since 1994), who was succeeded by his son, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il and then, after the second-generation Kim’s death, by his youngest son Kim Jong Un. The show discusses Kim Jong Un’s regime, including the accusation that he had his relatives murdered so they wouldn’t pose a threat to his succession or galvanize a revolution, and his paranoid (or maybe not so paranoid) insistence that the United States is planning to overthrow him by subsidizing North Korean expatriates to start a revolution à la the Arab Spring, the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics et al. (This morning’s Los Angeles Times has an interesting article arguing that the Russian government believes the U.S. is the one interfering in their internal affairs — and with the recent revelation from the Washington Post that U.S. intelligence has high-value sources well up in the Putin regime, they’re probably right.) Anyway, Warmbier probably didn’t realize what a hornet’s nest he was walking into when he signed up with Young Pioneer Tours for his five days in North Korea, during which he not only got the official guided tour but was able to make side trips to North Korean breweries and sample the local wares. (Who knew Pyongyang, so strait-laced about virtually everything else, has brew pubs?) 

Among the accusations made against Young Pioneer Tours on 20/20 was that not only the tourists were getting drunk on the local craft beers, so were the tour guides, and it’s quite likely they were getting so plastered they weren’t either willing or able to warn the members of their tour groups when they might be crossing the line and be about to do something that could get them into big trouble. Warmbier and the rest of his tour group stayed at an odd hostelry called the Yanggakdo International Hotel, on an island in the middle of a river running through Pyongyang. Every part of the hotel was open to tourists except the fifth floor, which was so far off limits there weren’t even buttons in the elevators you could push to stop at it — the elevator button sequence went directly from 4 to 6. Exactly what was so highly sensitive about the fifth floor, nobody quite knows — one member of another Young Pioneer tour group sneaked onto it and shot some cell-phone video, which showed little or nothing but empty space and a few bits of miscellaneous clutter, along with posters and slogans on the walls hailing the greatness of the Kim family and warning about death to Americans. (One cartoon the tourists would have seen showed a bomb marked “USA” headed straight for downtown Pyongyang.) Apparently Otto Warmbier decided to sneak onto the ultra-forbidden fifth floor and steal one of the posters hailing one of the Kims — according to the Wikipedia page on him, it contained a slogan reading, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” — and he got caught at it, though he had no idea he’d been caught until January 2, 2016, the very last day of his tour, when at the airport about to board the plane back to China for the journey home, Warmbier was tapped on the shoulder by a North Korean police officer and taken into custody. 

Warmbier’s roommate on the tour, British tourist Danny Gratton, was quoted both by Wikipedia and ABC because he was apparently the only witness to Warmbier’s arrest. “No words were spoken,” Gratton recalled. “Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that's the last we’ll see of you.’[1] There's a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.” Warmbier next appeared on North Korean television giving a tearful “confession” — obviously sweated and/or tortured out of him in the classic manner of dictatorships everywhere, including the Stalinist gulag that was obviously North Korea’s model for their own prison system — saying that taking the poster was “the worst thing I have ever done.” If he was hoping by being as apologetic as possible that the North Korean government was going to treat him decently, declare him persona non grata and send him home, he had another think coming: he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in one of North Korea’s gulag camps — and from that point he simply disappeared. The 20/20 program interviewed another U.S. citizen (albeit one of Korean ancestry), Richard Kim, who got popped by the North Koreans and sentenced to 15 years, of which he served two, because he was a member of a Christian community in the U.S. and had brought copies of the Bible in Korean — and that, apparently, is one of the worst things you can do in the eyes of the North Korean state because they don’t cotton to a religion that worships any family other than the Kims: Kim the father, Kim the son and now Kim the grandson. 

Various envoys from the U.S., including former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, tried to negotiate Warmbier’s release, but to no avail. Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, said the Obama administration was absolutely no help — they contacted Secretary of State John Kerry as well as the White House, and the staff members they talked to sounded sympathetic but refused to commit actually to do anything — and among other things the show seemed to be supportive of Donald Trump and the idea that once he got into the White House, his toughness and refusal to take shit from anyone would secure Warmbier’s release (much the way Republican mythology has analyzed the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-1981 as tough Ronald Reagan securing the release of the hostages after wimpy Jimmy Carter had been unable to get them out). Of course, exactly what happened to Otto Warmbier during his 17 months in custody remains a black box — we have literally no idea of what he went through except for the X-rays taken of his body after his death. Fred and Cindy Warmbier refused to permit an autopsy after their son died just one week after North Korea finally released him and sent him home on June 12, 2017, but X-rays taken at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Warmbier spent the last week of his life in a futile attempt by the doctors there to revive him, indicate that he was not physically beaten. According to a woman neurologist from New York, who looked at the X-rays and gave 20/20 her professional opinion about what they showed, had Warmbier been beaten on either side of his head, there would have been evidence of swelling — so whatever was done to him to put him in a comatose condition, a) it happened relatively early in his incarceration and b) it did not involve at least the most obvious forms of physical violence. Among the possible causes for Warmbier’s condition that have been suggested by doctors are a blood clot, pneumonia, sepsis, kidney failure, sleeping pills or botulism (which the University of Cincinnati doctors who actually treated him during his last week said they saw no evidence of, but several neurologists said it can’t be ruled out because of how long it took between Warmbier’s incarceration and his release to the U.S.). 

What makes the story so interesting is the genuine compassion with which the people at 20/20 told it, a far cry from the shrieking melodrama with which they approach just about every story they cover. Otto Warmbier emerges as a likable, charming young man, intelligent in some aspects and almost appallingly naïve in others, doing a few of the dumb things you’re expected to do in your late teens and early 20’s and paying an appalling and way out of proportion price for them. His friends (including a quite beautiful young blond man) interviewed for the show remember him as brilliant but also funny, and they seem to be dealing with their grief largely by concentrating their reminiscences on his silly, partying, good-time-loving side — the one that, ironically, got him into so much trouble. At the same time the show is a cautionary tale about the sheer arbitrariness of dictatorial government — that, depending on what side of the bed the dictator got up that morning or whether he’s having a bad hair day (though judging by the photos we’ve seen of Kim Jong Un he seems to be having a bad hair life), a foreigner that steps on the wrong side of the country’s rules could be let off with a warning or dumped into the gulag for decades. A number of commentators have compared Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump as personality types, and certainly there seem to be similarities — the vainglory, the egomania, the status anxiety (Kim Jong Un is well aware that as the youngest in his generation of the Kim family he was not supposed to inherit the family fortune, and as I’ve noted before Donald Trump grew up with status anxiety because his dad had been able to make money as a developer in New York City’s outer boroughs but hadn’t been able, as Donald was, to crack the sacred precincts of Manhattan) and the cultivation of unpredictability for unpredictability’s own sake — so much so that various writers have wondered whether we might blunder into the world’s first nuclear war (at least the first in which both sides had nuclear weapons) simply because two nuclear powers are being ruled by freaking crazies!

[1] — That seems like a last exchange which for sheer macabre irony rivals Waylon Jennings, on Buddy Holly’s last tour as his bass player, telling Holly as he got on the plane out of Clear Lake, Iowa, “I hope your old plane crashes” — just minutes before Holly’s plane did crash, killing him and the other three people on board.