What Otto Warmbier Can Teach North Korea

Written by Keith Hanson

Earlier this week, in what was initially seen as a potential humanitarian gesture conveying a desire for less strident relations with the outside world, North Korea released from prison and returned to the United States Otto Warmbier, a 22 year old college student who had been arrested by North Korea just over a year ago. Apparently Warmbier’s crime was attempting to steal a souvenir upon his departure from North Korea at the end of a five day visit there: a hotel room propaganda portrait of the Great Leader of the North Korean state, Kim Jong Un (Otto’s family suggests even that petty crime was a fabrication). Later, as it turns out, the reality of North Korea’s gesture in freeing Warmbier was something quite different: Warmbier was returned to his American family in a coma, a state he fell into more than a year ago, perhaps as a result of  mistreatment by North Korean prison officers.

While Western history is dotted with spiritually-minded individuals who have opted for the life of a hermit in order to move themselves closer to God or nature or for other spiritual reasons, today’s leaders of the North Korean hermit state seem to wall their people off from outside influences largely out of fear: fear of internal opposition developing, fear of external efforts to reduce their power, panic over the possibility of democratic change taking hold in their population.

Dealing with hermits has always been tricky; doing so with a nuclear-armed, schizophrenic and seemingly paranoid hermit in the age of the internet is downright dangerous.

There is no search for higher mystical meaning today in Pyongyang; it is all about keeping the people in the dark (both figuratively and, if you take a look at the photos from space, literally as well).

Located on a peninsula that exposes them to incursions by Mongols, Chinese, Japanese and Russians, it is little wonder Korea became known, in the days before its division in 1945, as the “Hermit Kingdom.”  Having been trod upon by foreign armies for hundreds, even thousands of years, when given the chance to rule itself before the 20th Century, Korea chose to exclude foreigners and foreign ways, earning it the nickname, “The Hermit Kingdom.”  With a few mineral resources, marginal farming potential, but an energetic and self-sacrificing population, Korea has seen much of its historical destiny dictated by its geography: as a bridge for invasions, a battleground in one of the hottest episodes of the Cold War, and a flash-point for international tensions for more than 70 years.

Some political scientists assert that when it comes to the economic development of nations, geography is destiny. Whether that is broadly true or not, it seems pretty clear that some nations have benefited over the years from simply existing in the right place at the right time while others have had to suffer the consequences of living in a tough neighborhood over centuries, even millennia.

Thus it is hard to argue that the United States has not been blessed in its years of development by taking root on a continent rich in natural resources, gifted with a climate and soils conducive to agriculture, and lacking settlement competition from any substantial and similarly industrially advanced neighbors.

Other nations have not been so fortunate. Poland has been sandwiched between aggressive regional or world powers for most of the last three hundred years. The Baltic nations similarly have found themselves at the edge of a hungry imperialist state, whether it was ruled by the czars, the commissars, or the kleptocrats of the Kremlin. Belgium, created as buffer state, has found itself in the path of invading and liberating armies time and again in the last two centuries. And then there are the Koreas, North and South.

Otto Warmbier (who is currently being treated for his grave medical condition at University of Cincinnati Hospital) and his family find themselves as victims of another aspect of North Korea’s hermit-like regime: North Korea’s abject failure to adopt the lessons of civilized acculturation that nations and peoples learn from one another through trade, education, diplomacy, cultural exchanges and the like. Civilized nations don’t imprison young people for a year or more for committing petty pranks. They don’t allow young and healthy prisoners to waste away in a coma for a year, hiding the condition of their captives from the world. And they don’t brandish the threat of first strike nuclear war as a legitimate element of national policy. Yet the hermits of Pyongyang do all those things, seemingly unaware of just how reprehensible their conduct is to virtually all of the rest of the world.

The individual hermits that took refuge in their thoughts while surviving simply in a desert or on a mountaintop over the course of the last two millennia sometimes contributed greatly to our knowledge of life, faith and spirituality. In contrast, the hermits of Pyongyang teach us only negative lessons: how not to treat guests, how not to interact with neighbors, how not to allow diplomacy and outreach to solve conflicts.

Here’s hoping that those small but persistent human interactions, those individual efforts by folks like Otto Wormier can, over time, break through the Pyongyang cliques’ shell and free the people of North Korea to drop their national status as hermits and join the community of nations that makes up the world today. That would be a fine legacy for this young man’s sacrifice and a hopeful sign for the world at large.