About 2,500 mourners, family members, friends, and supporters gathered to say farewell to Otto Warmbier last Thursday morning at Wyoming High School, Cincinnati, Ohio. Warmbier, 22, returned to the US last week in a coma following 17 months in detention in North Korea, after he was arrested for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster while visiting the DPRK as a tourist in early 2016.
The exact cause of the 22-year-old American student’s death is unclear, however, many are understandably suspicious about the North Korean explanation that Wambier contracted botulism following his controversial trial in the DPRK and lapsed into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. Warmbier had essentially disappeared for more than a year after his arrest in January 2016 and subsequent sentencing to 15 years of hard labour.
Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Centre in Ohio, who treated him after he arrived back in the US, were alarmed by the extent of Warmbier’s neurological injuries. However, they could not precisely identify the cause and his family has denied an autopsy. Prominent US Senator John McCain effectively charged the DPRK with his murder and torture on Twitter, adding that the “US should not tolerate such hostile action.”
Questions have also been raised about the Chinese travel company, Young Pioneer Tours, with whom Warmbier organised his five-day trip to North Korea. Young Pioneers Tours will no longer be accepting US citizens on North Korean tours after Warmbier’s death. However, in the face of accusations that it has a “boozy culture” and is negligent to the risks associated with tourism in the DPRK, the group has emphasized its safety record. Spokesman Rowan Beard told News Corp Australia: “We have taken more than 8000 people to North Korea with only one incident,” and pointed to the company’s strong reputation on TripAdvisor.
He added: “We brief our tourists well — both through documentation and at our meetings in Beijing, so they understand what types of behaviour could create problems and how to avoid contravening the law.”
The circumstances of Warmbier’s detention in the DPRK and his ultimate death are tragically mysterious. Western parents are very familiar with the phenomenon of waving their curious young-adult children farewell as they jet off to travel the world and broaden their educational and experiential horizons. Of course, they expect their loved ones to return home, perhaps exhausted and more independent, but certainly not in a vegetative state.
This youthful desire to pioneer travel experiences and learn about the world also coincides with another growing trend: dark tourism. Dark tourism can be broadly categorized as travel to sinister locations associated with death and tragedy. Common (and largely uncontroversial) examples include historical sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in Poland, and the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York.
This type of tourism is not new, rather, what has brought so-called dark-tourism into ethical question is the commercialization of such sites and its further expansion to destinations more recently (or currently) embroiled in political, military and/or humanitarian crises.
Controversial examples include travel to recent conflict hot spots in Libya and Afghanistan. Of course, another example is North Korea, the isolated and mysterious “hermit kingdom,” which continues to threaten international security with its nuclear program and perpetuates egregious human rights violations against its own citizens.
Travel to the DPRK is a niche but fast-growing market. In 2013, between 6000 and 7000 Westerners made the trip, nearly doubling the figure from the previous year. Travel agencies, shaken up by a changing tourism industry wherein travellers can easily plan their own “conventional” holidays, have seized this opportunity, with growing agencies specializing or offering packages in North Korea.
Peter Hohenhaus, who runs the dark-tourism.com website suggests that sometimes an added attraction to sites of dark tourism is the distorted portrayals of history and reality. From a historiographical perspective, he argues, this can be fascinating. Hohenhaus describes how in North Korea tourists are always accompanied by two official, state-licensed and sanctioned tour guides, and the Korean War is depicted as a great patriotic victory against imperialist US aggression.
Drawing the ethical boundaries on dark tourism hinges to a large extent on the intentions behind it. Heightening understanding of tragic past events, lest they are repeated, can be a solemn and noble educational experience. However, it is absolutely crucial that sensitive subjects such as war, genocide, terrorism and natural disasters are approached, both by tourists and tour guides, with sufficient care and gravitas. An added dilemma exists in places like North Korea, where tours are state-guided and restricted, and indirectly at least, tourist money will likely ultimately flow into the state machinery of Kim’s dictatorship.
Otto Warmbier’s prosecution, detention and ultimate death as a result of his travel to North Korea, and for “crimes,” which from a Western perspective are unfathomable as more than trivial misdemeanour, must signal a warning to those considering visiting the DPRK and testing the new frontiers of dark tourism that bring curious adventurers closer to crisis hot-spots and danger.
As for North Korea, there is little that has not already been said about the brutal regime. A greater transparency is necessary, and international bodies and states, particularly China and the US, must continue to work tirelessly together to address the situation, which in 2017 seems more and more likely to come to a head.
The death of Otto Warmbier is just the latest tragedy in a protracted story of suffering in North Korea. Millions of North Koreans have been victimized and killed under the 70-year reign by their repressive government. Perhaps, however, the death of an American citizen can spur the United States into further efforts with other states and organisations, and ultimately a more effective (although not reflexive) course of action.
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