News of Otto Warmbier started to surface over the last few days. Mr. Warmbier, a 21 year old University of Virginia student, was detained in North Korea several weeks ago as he was leaving the country with his travel group. Warmbier’s detainment marks yet another tough period of negotiation throughout the State Department, which has no arm within North Korea. So, why exactly was Otto Warmbier detained? And what does this mean for the United States going forward? These two questions will be explored throughout this short post. (In a later investigative analysis, I will try to show the different stories of the many Americans who have been detained within the reclusive country.)
Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as a regular tourist. Young Pioneer Tours, the agency which Warmbier utilized to travel into North Korea, said Warmbier had behaved like a traditional tourist – taking pictures, traveling (with his guides) and enjoying his time in North Korea (Washington Post). However, there may have been an incident at the Yanggakdo hotel that facilitated his capture by the North Korean authorities.
Reuters first reported the incident in the hotel. However, no concrete details of the hotel incident have surfaced, except that the KCNA reported that Warmbier had committed an act of hostility against the regime. The KCNA report also said Warmbier is currently under investigation as he remains in Pyongyang. Young Pioneer Tours said Warmbier wanted to keep the incident to himself and no one was aware of the actual incident (Reuters; Washington Post).
Thought the details of the hotel incident may never be known, the details of his detainment are known. On his way through customs, Warmbier was taken aside by an airport official and sat in an immigration office. Charlotte Guttridge was the only outside witness to Warmbier’s detainment (Reuters). When Warmbier was stopped at customs, she attempted to stay behind and assist. However, she was already through customs and unable to leave the plane. Upon takeoff, she was told that Warmbier had been taken to a hospital (Reuters). Gareth Johnson, the founder and CEO of Young Pioneer Tours, opted to remain in North Korea after news of Warmbier detention reached him, only departing the country after he realized little would come of his presence in the country.
So, now that I have outlined the details of the detainment, time to explore the elephant in the room. What does the most recent detainment mean for North Korea – U.S. relations and how will the United States Proceed? The second half of the question is easier to explain. Obviously, the United States will work to garner the release of Otto Warmbier, but without a United States embassy, or any form of official entity in Pyongyang, Sweeden will bear the brunt. Sweeden for years has been the go between for Washington D.C. and Pyongyang, acting as the mediating party for cases such as Otto’s case. In fact, Sweeden was one of the first entities notified, along with the State Department and the Warmbier family, by Young Pioneer Tours after the detainment.
The first half of the question above is a little more complicated. North Korea has used the detainment of American citizens before to gain political concessions. Each person is arrested, most under grounds that can be argued as illegal in North Korea, but then become political hostages. Otto’s case has a high probability to become one of these cases. First, the United States is currently looking to adopt more economic sanctions on North Korea. Warmbier will be used to divert the conversation and the make sure sanctions are not too harmful to the regime. Warmbier will be used, unfortunetly, as a way to get concessions from the international community, as there is no other was to guarantee his release.
Warmbier’s detainment has resurfaced many different conversations. The main one is highlighting the risk in traveling to North Korea. Though you are under constant surveillance, the chance of detainment is ever present. Time released an article online warning of such possibilities, saying people should not add North Korea to their bucket lists. While I second the article in highlighting the warnings of traveling to North Korea, there are several reasons why I would say to remove North Korea travel from your bucket list is a little too much. Many Americans do travel to North Korea, with very few being detained. So, if you do want to travel to North Korea, what should you do? One, travel with a reputable agency, examples include Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours. Two, no matter how alone you think you are, please adhere to all North Korean laws and regulations. Before you leave, do your homework and figure out exactly what is allowed and what is prohibited in North Korea. I do think that travel to North Korea, by those willing to take the risks, is probably one of the most rewarding and interesting journeys anyone can take.