The Politics of Travel to North Korea
I was recently on a vacation. During this time, I avoided social media and the internet in general. I wanted a break from my life. So, I didn’t get much news while I was away. The only piece of news that I heard about while I was gone was that Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States in a vegetative state. I didn’t even know that he had died until after I returned. This news haunted me. It was horrific and mysterious. What happened to him? Why hadn’t he been released sooner? Would he recover? In a way, I became haunted by the fragments of the news story. At the same time, now that I have returned, I have been able to read the news regarding his release and death as well as how it has been politicized.
I traveled to North Korea in 2010 without incident. I was impressed with how clean the country was and how the sky was blue and free of air pollution (at least in places that I visited). The roads were empty. The country seemed empty. I was there for over a week and saw many monuments, the mass games, Kaesong, the USS Pueblo, the DMZ, etc. It was a memorable, amazing time in a very unusual and misunderstood country. I felt extremely safe the entire time. Of course, it was an enormous privilege to travel there, just as all of my travels are an astonishing exercise of privilege. 2010 was the first year that Americans were allowed to travel to North Korea year round. I felt privileged to go there just as the doors to tourism were expanding for Americans. I also felt that as an American, I could break some stereotypes about us. After all, I am anti-war and anti-capitalist….anti-American. When North Koreans learned that I was American, they seemed shocked, curious, and confused. I sang The International on the bus with the guides. The other tourists treated me like I was one of “them” (a communist), even though there is a enormous political difference between North Koreans and myself, a Trotskyist. Nevertheless, I wanted to see what North Korea was like. After studying in South Korea, I wanted to see the other side of the story. I am eager to visit any country that has experimented with/experienced socialism in one form or another.
Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as well, but with a much different outcome. We were both similar in that he probably also went there out of curiosity, a sense of adventure, and bragging rights. Though, unlike me, he was not anti-capitalist or anti-American. He wanted to be an investment banker, was a Zionist, and was athletic and popular. I am a tee-totaling, socially awkward, socialist. He and his tour group went drinking and celebrating the New Year. One member of his group even went missing for several hours. I would have spent the New Year quietly reading or journaling. He took a sign and was detained on his way out of the country. I left without any incident or perception of danger. Although I was very careful to follow the rules, it might have happened to anyone. And, even if he did make a mistake by taking the poster, the punishment of 15 years of hard labor and his ultimate death is grotesquely unjust and deeply disturbing. I feel terrible for him and his family! I feel horrified by the mysterious circumstances of his death.
His death has resulted in some controversy and debate. On one hand, the Left has been accused of hating Otto Warmbier for questioning his privilege and treating him like an ignorant, white, frat boy. Interestingly, his career goals in investment banking and Zionism has not been as central to criticisms about him. It is frustrating that so much discourse is focused on privilege, but does not connect this to the larger mechanisms of capitalist exploitation. At the extreme of the privilege discourse, he is believed to have gotten what he deserved. Those words cost Katherine Dettwyler, a professor at the University of Delaware, future employment with the college. While it is not a kind thing to say, it is disappointing that the college did not honor academic freedom. Personally, I don’t think that anyone deserves to come home in a vegetative state or get sentenced to hard labor for any offense. Surely, there are more compassionate ways to express frustration with racial and class privilege. But, at the same time, oppression is real and does not express itself with kind words. We live in a brutal, violent, frightening, world wherein the majority of humanity has been immiserated by systems that grant power to a few. For most humans today and throughout history, life is not a hedonistic quest of self-actualization but a struggle to meet basic needs. Unfortunately, travelers such as myself, are looking for a distraction, indulgence, or adventure. The cost and context of this is often ignored. Even to those who might be a bit more socially minded, must compartmentalize any modicum of pleasure derived from travel as it most surely has negative impacts either on the planet or other humans. In any event, there should be the social space to speak freely about privilege, even if it is expressed in unpretty ways.
On the other hand, the right has called for banning American travel to North Korea and some kind of action against the country. In this narrative, the Trump administration is viewed heroically for securing his release and taking more initiative on the matter than the Obama administration. Americans should avoid North Korea because we are hated there. This narrative portrays North Korea as a brutal, horrific pariah state which deserves a dose of American retribution (a.k.a regime change, liberation, etc.). While certainly North Korea is a frightening dictatorship, this narrative does not uncover why we are disliked and feared by North Koreans. It ignores the fact that during the Korean War, the United States killed 20% of the population. The United States targeted refugee populations during the war and General McArthur ordered the destruction of every village, means of communication, factory, and city in the north. Long before the famous famines that North Korea faced in the 1990s, the United States starved the country by flooding farmlands through destroyed dams. The United States dropped more bombs on North Korea during the Korean war than it dropped in the entire Asian theater of World War II. The country was punished with bombs and napalm in a destruction more complete than Germany and Japan faced as a result of WWII. So, North Korea does have rational reasons to dislike the United States. Our foreign policy since the Korean War has not done much to dispel the notion that we are not a peace loving nation.
This raises the question of if Americans should travel there at all? Assuming that one believes in travel, I don’t think that Americans should impose a ban on travel to North Korea. Each year, around 6,000 Western tourists travel to North Korea, but around 100,000 in total (mostly from China). For the most part, these tourists, like myself, travel there without incident. While Americans have been detained in the past, this has typically been for religious activity or illegal entry into the country. Of course, our own foreign policy plays a role in the safety of travelers there (just as it plays a role in the safety of travelers to many countries). Our foreign policy regarding North Korea seems particularly aggressive at the moment. I have no illusions that somehow travel opens minds or spreads peace. Travel can be colonizing and damaging to the planet. So, I don’t believe that travel will somehow liberate North Korea by introducing new ideas or new people, nor should it. Yet, at the same time, I think it can be useful in seeing The Other and learning something new, even if it is skewed by minders and propaganda. In a way, it also normalizes North Korea. Normalizing North Korea is useful in creating an anti-war movement that can stand against U.S. foreign policy. This isn’t to argue that human rights abuses should be normalized, but rather that U.S. aggression against sovereign countries should not be normalized. Recognizing the right of other countries to exist is important to thinking against the norms of U.S. imperialism. Of course, a person does not have to travel to North Korea to come to that conclusion. A travel ban distracts from the “why” of U.S. and North Korean relations. All travel involves some risks. A traveler should consider these risks, of course. A dark skinned traveler to the United States could be shot by the police. An American traveler to North Korea could be detained for political reasons. While there are plenty of compelling reasons not to travel at all, travel is a part of normal relations between countries. If the government is concerned about the safety of Americans, our safety is best ensured by scaling back our military power around the world.
The death of Otto Warmbier is terrifying. I hope that someday there are more answers regarding what happened to him. I don’t think that he deserved to die any more than a woman who drinks too much deserves to be raped. The world is made unsafe by many things. Crimes such as theft, sexual assault, gun violence, etc. Preventable disease. Terrorism. And, in Otto’s case, detainment by a repressive regime. Yet, all of these things…sexual assault, terrorism, preventable disease, etc. have causes and solutions. While the solution for North Korea is complicated and not something that the United States can or should solve, admitting our own role in history as well as the political landscape of the present is important to understanding why Otto Warmbier died.