Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, died June 19 after being returned from detention in North Korea in a coma. Photo: Reuters/Kyodo

“Hey, Brad! Quick question: You think North Korea is safe to visit? Since I’m living in China it’s super easy to hop a tour.”

That message came to me some weeks ago from Misti McDaniel, an adventurous American world traveler who teaches eighth grade math at Shanghai American School.

I’d known her when she was a graduate student at a university where I taught.

“Many people think I’m crazy,” she continued, “but I think they are buying into media hyperbole. I’ll use you as my baseline for security – North Korea tour: yes or no?”

I replied, “Go for it,” while adding that I personally might stay away for now, since I’m persona non grata as the author of publications the regime dislikes. “I see no danger for you as a tourist who knows how to behave.”

Indeed, Misti was determined to follow the rules and give no offense. She told me she’d even “packed a ‘smart casual’ outfit to show my respect” when visiting the giant statues of the first two Kim rulers, nearly always the tourists’ first Pyongyang stop.

But as Misti prepared to join a July tour, she messaged me again. “The news of the last week made me reconsider my ability to achieve the goals of traveling safely.

“I began to realize that . . . my seven days of wanting to experience, learn and engage would be impossible, as I would be anxiously focused on my final hour in the country – and wondering if I would be escorted away and detained by North Korean officials.”

The news, of course, was about University of Virginia student Otto Wambier’s return to the U.S. in a coma, and I’d started to have second thoughts myself.

Otto Warmbier at a news conference in North Korea in February 2016 after being detained in the country the previous month. Reuters/Kyodo

Before I got around to retracting my earlier advice, two things happened: Wambier died, and Misti’s tour operator – the sometimes sharply criticized company that had taken Wambier in – canceled the reservations of all US citizen clients with full refund.

When even the tour operator acknowledges that “the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high,” it seems clear that the risk is greater these days than in the past.

And by “these days” I mean during the era of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s young and exceedingly thin-skinned third-generation ruler.

Kim Jong-un came into power feeling under siege: specifically, a barrage of insults.

Kim Jong-un came into power feeling under siege: specifically, a barrage of insults.

To see that graphically, go to this site and search for the word “insult.”  Choose bargraph mode to find the number of references made by the state’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) since 1997.

Note the remarkable upsurge following the December 2010 death of Kim’s father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il.

Along the way, Kim Jong-un decided that he needed to employ more direct means than simply complaining in propaganda announcements.

North Korea unleashed a devastating hack on Sony Corp. in November 2014 in retaliation for a perceived insult in the form of a movie, “The Interview,” whose fictional plot shows Kim assassinated.

A few months after that, in August 2015, KCNA’s verbal responses to perceived “insults,” so termed, stopped completely, the graph shows. But direct, concrete retaliation continued.

In January 2016 Otto Wambier went to Pyongyang on a Young Pioneers tour. His insult was a fraternity boy’s prank: stealing a propaganda sign from his hotel. For that, somehow, he has now died after months in a coma.

It was early in 2016 that FBI agents came to my office to warn me of “state-sponsored” hackers in the Far East who had targeted me and other North Korea watchers. The agents didn’t want to be too specific, but they didn’t discourage my assumption that the hackers were North Korean.

The hackers have proved persistent, as I have continued to criticize Kim Jong-un. One day recently they got inside my computer (only briefly, I hope) via a computer in Utah. I expect the attacks to escalate as my new book comes out.

North Korea’s trajectory of lashing out more and more viciously at those responsible for perceived insults is remarkably similar to that of Thailand, where the crown prince recently has become king.

“Between 2011 and 2013, 119 people were investigated for insulting the monarchy,” the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported this month.

“Over the last three years, between 2014 and 2016, that figure has more than doubled to at least 285,” the UN announcement said.

“Statistics provided by Thai authorities show there has been a sharp fall in the number of people who have been able to successfully defend themselves against lèse majesté charges.

“Statistics provided by Thai authorities show there has been a sharp fall in the number of people who have been able to successfully defend themselves against lèse majesté charges.

From 2011-13, around 24 percent of people charged with the offense walked free, but over the next three years, that number fell to about 10 percent. Last year, that figure was only 4 percent.”

This month, the UN office reported the harshest sentence yet: “A Thai military court found Wichai Thepwong guilty of posting 10 photos, videos and comments on Facebook deemed defamatory of the royal family. He was sentenced to 70 years in jail, but the sentence was reduced to 35 years after he confessed to the charges.”

Those convicted of lèse majesté in Thailand are mainly Thai citizens, but foreigners are also targeted and some dare not enter the country these days. Foreign publications are blocked when they are considered violators.

Likewise in North Korea, the few highly visible cases in which foreigners are targeted are the tip of the iceberg. Credible reports say that citizens have become more critical of the regime – and, when caught, are made to pay for it.

Pardon my French, but the problem for the ruler seems to be: the less majesté he exhibits, the more lèse he encounters.

While this all works itself out, we still need the information that comes from visits to still-isolated North Korea by perceptive foreigners including my fellow journalists.

Thus a total U.S. government ban on citizens’ visits would be counterproductive. However, tourists for whom a visit is simply a lark should stay home or go to some other isolated country where the stakes are not quite so high.

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty. His novel Nuclear Blues is due out shortly.

6 replies on “Changing my advice on visiting North Korea”

Comments are closed.