Otto Warmbier: Blaming the victim

Otto Warmbier under arrest

We wrote last year about Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who went on a tour of North Korea only to find himself sentenced to 15 years at hard labor for supposedly stealing a propaganda banner from a corridor in his Pyongyang hotel – and who, last month, in a horrific denouement, was returned to the U.S. in a coma only to die several days later. In our account of the Warmbier case last year, we took a look at the firm, Young Pioneer Tours (YPT), that arranged the group trip in which he took part – but that, in the aftermath of his tragic experience, has ceased organizing vacations to the Hermit Kingdom.

Warmbier in court

A quick recap on YPT: according to its own website, it was founded by Gareth Johnson, a Britisher who has a great “love for the people and culture” of North Korea. The site also quoted from a YPT official, Shane Horan: “I’m passionate about travel to so called ‘rogue nations’ and changing people’s often incorrect perceptions of them.” YPT’s promotional materials directly addressed potential vacationers’ concern about safety in North Korea: “How safe is it? Extremely safe! Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit. Tourism is very welcomed in North Korea, thus tourists are cherished and well taken care of.”

Warmbier and fellow tour members in Pyongyang, prior to his arrest

Far from being cherished and well taken of, however, Warmbier was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang when he was about to return home. He was put on trial and, on March 16 of last year, sent to prison. YPT issued a statement to the effect that it was “continuing to work closely with relevant authorities to ensure a speedy and satisfactory outcome for Mr Warmbier.” Well, that didn’t exactly work out. 

La Sha

Far from showing any remorse, YPT kept whitewashing North Korea. And meanwhile Warmbier was undergoing – well, no one outside of Kim Jong-un’s empire knows exactly what he underwent. It now seems clear that he was savagely abused. Nobody remotely familiar with the reality of North Korea should have been surprised at the thought that the incarcerated American was undergoing brutal treatment. But that thought didn’t stop many appalling people in the U.S. from blaming Warmbier for his own fate – and, in effect, taking the side of the North Korean regime. At the Huffington Post, for example, a writer named La Sha took palpable pleasure at the news of Warmbier’s prison sentence, writing that “the shield his cis white male identity provides here in America is not teflon abroad.” The “reckless gall” Warmbier had demonstrated in North Korea by supposedly snatching a propaganda poster, argued La Sha, was “an unfortunate side effect of being socialized first as a white boy, and then as a white man in this country.”

As a “benefactor…of all privilege,” suggested La Sha (she later referred to his “alabaster American privilege”), Warmbier had developed an “arrogance,” a “subconscious yet no less obnoxious perception that the rules do not apply to him, or at least that their application is negotiable.” But there was more. As we’ll see tomorrow, La Sha actually compared Warmbier to the Aurora, Colorado, mass murderer. 

 

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