The New York Times hasn’t always been a totally loyal participant in the struggle against totalitarianism – note that our poster boy for useful stoogery is the Times‘s own shameless apologist for Stalinism, Walter Duranty – but now and then it comes through. It certainly did so on March 26, when it ran a splendid op-ed, entitled “Please Cancel Your Vacation to North Korea,” by Marie Myung-ok Lee.
Lee, who teaches writing at Columbia University, began by referring to the case of Otto Warmbier, which we’ve already discussed here. Warmbier, it will be remembered, is the American college student whose ill-advised New Year’s vacation in Pyongyang turned into a nightmare after he was caught on closed-circuit camera taking a propaganda sign off of a wall in the hotel where he was staying. This innocent attempt to snag a souvenir resulted in a 15-year sentence at hard labor in a North Korean prison.
“In photographs from the trial,” writes Lee, Warmbier “seemed utterly shocked that he was being prosecuted.” Lee adds: “I was not shocked.”
The reason? Lee’s parents fled North Korea in their teens and settled in America. Lee knows how brutal the Kim regime is. After leaving the Hermit Kingdom, Lee’s father “tried several times to return to visit his homeland, including with a medical group bringing in supplies.” He was denied entry every time. Lee, however, was able to visit in 2009 as part of a group of teachers and students. She was also able to take her mother on the trip.
“Our group,” writes Lee,
was briefed several times about the things we could and couldn’t do. We were not allowed to bring Bibles, satellite phones, cameras with telephoto lenses, notebooks, pornography. We were told to expect that our group would probably be spied on and to not bad-mouth any of the regime’s leaders, past or present, even in private.
On arriving in North Korea, as Lee puts it, “you lose control.” They take your passport. They control your movements. They select your meals. They decide whom you get to meet. And they house you in a Pyongyang hotel that’s located on an island by itself, separated by water from the rest of the city. Of course there’s no possibility of making a phone call to the family back home or sending them an e-mail.
The reality of North Korean tyranny is no secret in the rest of the world. But for many Americans, tyranny is simply not a reality. They can’t process the idea. Living all your life in freedom can make it difficult to realize what it really means to live without freedom. As Lee writes, “reports of ‘drunken high jinks’” on the part of Americans visiting Kim’s realm “are becoming more common.” As we’ve noted previously on this website, the travel agency Warmbier used, Young Pioneer Tours, encourages a frivolous attitude toward totalitarianism.
Lee warns fervently against such attitudes. She recalls that during her North Korean visit, a tour bus she was riding on “stopped in the middle of the countryside” and she “noticed a bicycle leaning forlornly against a tree and felt that would make a compelling photo.” But before she could take a picture, “the bus was stormed by soldiers.” Another tourist, it emerged, had already snapped a photo – which was a particularly serious offense, because, unbeknownst to the passengers, they were in the middle of a military installation. The offender, a fellow student of Lee’s, was removed from the bus. A Warmbier-like situation was averted – but only because the student was a citizen of China, North Korea’s only ally.