My decision to visit North Korea was reflex. It was 2007, I was a young (and quite skinny) English teacher in Seoul, and tours over the 38th parallel were becoming popular. The seaside town of Gumgangsan, located a 40-minute drive over the DMZ on the eastern coast, was receiving rafts of slick tour buses from the south, which seemed wrapped in a lofty cloak of purpose.
There was plenty of reason for positivity: The fact that such tours existed was proof of thawing relations amid the world’s most unpredictable feuds. Of the eight buses that set out for the north the weekend I made my trip, seven were filled with South Korean citizens, the other reserved for mostly North Americans and Europeans. If peace is to come about, I thought, asking an enemy to take your picture in front of a mountain landscape seems a good place to start. There are, set deep within the DNA of our existence, moments of travel that are intrinsically relatable which make all of our differences fade away. Here both sides were, sharing thoughts on nature instead of bullets and bombs.
At the time, Kim Jong-Il was very much alive and in power. The world had yet to be introduced to his son and current ruler Kim Jong-Un, whose existence was obscured from all consciousness beyond his borders. Perhaps even within. Ruthlessness, avunculicide, brinkmanship, famine and elite excess defined his father’s regime. They have now come to define his, as well.
Watching Otto F. Warmbier weep over the prospect of facing 15 years of hard labor is a heart-rending sight to behold. The University of Virginia student is accused of stealing a propaganda poster — barely a misdemeanor in most of the world. But North Korea isn’t most of the world: It is an isolationist regime that is so incredibly totalitarian that it slips into being atavistic. You only need to gauge the progress of the global community to realize that North Korea’s self-imposed containment is a social experiment that can never again be performed on this planet. Unfortunately Mr Warmer is another in a line of US citizens that are witnessing this experiment up close.
Neurotic dictators have a tendency to succumb to the vagaries of brutality. But even within their warped worlds there are still guidelines, and most of them aren’t hard to follow. On my trip to the north, our South Korean guide yelled out to the busload of us before leaving: “You can take pictures as we go through the DMZ. But no pictures after the checkpoint on the north. There are soldiers standing every 500 meters and they will flag us down if they see cameras out and our bus will have to go back immediately.” He continued: “The next rule is to keep your lanyard on whenever you are outside of the hotel.” The string had a plastic casing of our picture, as well as a place for our passport. I joked that the US passport made for a nice target. “No pictures of any North Koreans,” he added. This was a fully tested rule. I asked a North Korean minder (insert ‘tour guide’) if it was OK to take a photo with me, and he politely refused. Fair enough, I thought.
A year after my visit to Gumgangsan, an old South Korean woman was shot and killed. Northern officials claimed that she had wandered into a restricted military zone and repeatedly ignored calls to turn around and leave. The south said that she was picking flowers. As with Mr Warmbier’s case, it is impossible to discern the truth. Past prisonsers have said that they were coerced into making statements. Stories that come out of North Korean are as trustworthy as the history books.
The common denominator reaction to Mr Warmbier’s unjust sentence has been: “Why would anyone go to North Korea in the first place?” I can’t ignore the risk of entering a country where zero legal protection is guaranteed. But I also can’t support utter neglect of a nation that still, under its guidelines, welcomes a world willing to see what they are willing to show us, even if it is Potemkin. Despite constant threats, war doesn’t seem likely. Mr Kim wouldn’t risk losing a helm generations in the making.
I’m not a hawk: Diplomacy has always been better than death, and for those willing to exercise that mission, North Korea is the most friendly place one can dance directly with the enemy. After my minder refused to pose, he gladly offered to play photographer and snap a shot. When handed back my camera, I mustered what broken Korean I could and asked: “Do you like Americans?” My minder responded: “No, I hate Americans. But I like you because you are here.”