Otto Warmbier and the Triumph of the North Korean Propaganda Machine

 

What are we to make of the strangely incurious reaction by most media outlets and commentators toward the charges levied by the North Korean regime against Otto Warmbier? Even if one accepts that civilized countries should tolerate the manhandling of their citizens by thug regimes for such ridiculous “crimes,” I find it odd that nobody is really questioning the facts surrounding his arrest.

Most of the articles and commentary I’ve read (including those by people sympathetic to his plight as well as the “white frat boy had it coming” crowd) accept uncritically that Mr. Warmbier took down a propaganda poster in a restricted area of his hotel (to their credit @jaynordlinger and Jim Geraghty appear to be notable exceptions, but the Smart Girls and many other Ricochet podcasters appear to have accepted the factuality of Mr. Warmbier’s offense). This despite the fact that:

(1) Mr. Warmbier’s roommate says that he was never alone long enough to do the deed, and never gave any indication that he was even thinking of such a thing,

(2) his roommate’s account of the final day of their trip clearly suggests that Mr. Warmbier, as an American traveling alone, was deliberately targeted for kidnap by the regime,

(3) the North Koreans have a long and time-honored tradition of kidnapping foreigners for various purposes, including to use as leverage in the next round of interminable talks,

(4) the North Korean regime habitually lies about everything,

(5) Mr. Warmbier’s confession, wrung out of him at great duress, was clearly written by a non-English speaker, and paints a counterfactual picture of a poverty-stricken, churchgoing Methodist Warmbier family (Mr. Warmbier’s family does not appear to be in any financial distress and are non-observant Jews), and

(6) the only other evidence presented is a grainy video in which the poster is clearly visible but the perpetrator’s face is never seen.

In short, there is more evidence that Kim Jong Il golfed a 38 under-par than that Otto Warmbier actually removed a propaganda poster as he was accused. Yet media outlets across the political spectrum are almost uniformly uninterested in examining these claims, and accept them as true. A victory for the North Korean propaganda machine, I guess.

There are 22 comments.

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  1. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    People were awful upset when a teenage American was caned in Singapore for committing a horrible crime….

    KETTERING, Ohio, June 25— The 19-year-old American who was caned in Singapore for vandalism says the bleeding it caused was “like a bloody nose.”

    The teen-ager, Michael P. Fay, said in an interview on Saturday that the four strokes with a rattan cane on May 5 had left three dark-brown scars on his right buttock and four lines each about half an inch wide on his left buttock.

    In giving his first description of the caning, Mr. Fay said that prison officials told him he had shouted, “I’m dying,” when the first stroke was delivered. He said he could not remember crying out.

    He said a prison officer stood beside him and guided him through the ordeal, saying: “O.K., Michael, three left. O.K., Michael, two left. O.K., one more; you’re almost done.”

    The Government of Singapore has defended caning as a normal part of the country’s legal system, but the incident has strained Singapore’s relations with the United States.

    After confessing to vandalism, Mr. Fay was sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes with a half-inch-thick cane on two counts of vandalism and possession of stolen road signs. The sentence was later reduced to four strokes.

    That was in 1994. And Singapore is an ally. Granted, we are not going to war over Jenkin’s Ear. But it is disturbing that the previous administration did squat and that the media (but I repeat myself) is not in full blown 72 point type moral outrage.

    We’ve sure come a long ways away from the days when “I am an American citizen” had the same import as “I am a Roman citizen”.

    I wonder, if you salted the earth in North Korea, would you be able to tell the difference?

     

    • #1
  2. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Very good point.  I doubt that he would engage in vandalism in North Korea.  Of course, simply travelling to North Korea certainly calls his judgement into question.  But still, that would be odd.  And anyone who takes the North Korean government at its word is either a fool or a progressive.

    Outstanding post.

    • #2
  3. ibn Abu Member
    ibn Abu
    @ibnAbu

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):
    Very good point. I doubt that he would engage in vandalism in North Korea. Of course, simply travelling to North Korea certainly calls his judgement into question. But still, that would be odd. And anyone who takes the North Korean government at its word is either a fool or a progressive.

    Outstanding post.

    To the point of his judgment in going to North Korea, I agree with you. However, playing the Devil’s advocate, and viewing things in the light most favorable to Mr. Warmbier (who surely deserves a little leeway now), it should be noted that the tour company that offers these trips bills them as 100% safe for Americans, who make up a significant number of their customers.  Note too that as far as I can tell, nobody from any of these sanctioned trips (which are a source of revenue for the Norks) has ever before been detained in this way.  There were 10 other Americans on Warmbier’s trip, though it seems that he was targeted specifically (the hotel failed to give his room a wakeup call on the last day presumably to separate him from the crowd) – maybe the other Americans were in groups and he, traveling alone, was the easiest target?

    Jim Geraghty correctly notes that Otto’s only mistake was going to North Korea. But people, especially young adults whose sense of adventure often outweighs their sense of mortality, often go to dangerous places. I don’t have the numbers, but statistically my guess is that more Westerners have been killed or otherwise harmed going to Cairo or Macchu Picchu than have been killed or harmed on these tours into North Korea. Yet we don’t victim-blame those who suffer this fate in those ocuntries.  I have to confess that if I happened to be in China (fat chance of that ever happening) I might be tempted (briefly) by curiosity to see the Hermit Kingdom side of the border for myself.

    • #3
  4. ibn Abu Member
    ibn Abu
    @ibnAbu

    Steve C. (View Comment):
     

    That was in 1994. And Singapore is an ally. Granted, we are not going to war over Jenkin’s Ear. But it is disturbing that the previous administration did squat and that the media (but I repeat myself) is not in full blown 72 point type moral outrage.

    We’ve sure come a long ways away from the days when “I am an American citizen” had the same import as “I am a Roman citizen”.

    I wonder, if you salted the earth in North Korea, would you be able to tell the difference?

    Good point. Michael Fay was undoubtedly, 100% guilty. And his caning, while severe by US standards, was so mild by comparison to what happened to Otto Warmbier that it can barely be called punishment. Certainly Fay never suffered any long-term harm other than the welts described in that article. And the Singaporean officials seem to have been fairly solicitous of him even while caning him.

    I remember the outrage that arose over Fay’s caning and I just can’t understand why we as a country aren’t going berserk over Warmbier’s treatment.

    • #4
  5. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    ibn Abu (View Comment):
    I remember the outrage that arose over Fay’s caning and I just can’t understand why we as a country aren’t going berserk over Warmbier’s treatment.

    Good point.

    • #5
  6. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    ibn Abu (View Comment):
    I remember the outrage that arose over Fay’s caning and I just can’t understand why we as a country aren’t going berserk over Warmbier’s treatment.

    If you want any of that you have to show how it’s going to advance any of the media’s narratives of hate (Trump, Emmanuel Goldstein, western civilization). I don’t see where you’ve done that.

    • #6
  7. ST Inactive
    ST
    @SimonTemplar

    I would hope that there are some guys quietly planning our “payback.”

    This aggression will not stand.

    • #7
  8. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    I would credit it less to the success of the DPRK propaganda machine and more to the failure of progressives to think with any sort of clarity.

    • #8
  9. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    ST (View Comment):
    I would hope that there are some guys quietly planning our “payback.”

    This aggression will not stand.

    Doubtful. As much as I’d like our guys to “reach out and touch somebody”, the risk reward calculation is out of whack. I would read some intent into Trump’s statement about China failing to influence the Norks. I expect some things will begin to happen and be not so subtle actions.

     

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Tragic. I wonder if, in hindsight, there might have been some benefit from saying he was Jewish. They wouldn’t have had to say the reasons they released him and could have avoided the embarrassment you suggest. Sorry–just wishful thinking with no intent to blame anyone.

    • #10
  11. Matt White Member
    Matt White
    @

    Steve C. (View Comment):
    People were awful upset when a teenage American was caned in Singapore for committing a horrible crime….

    KETTERING, Ohio, June 25— The 19-year-old American who was caned in Singapore for vandalism says the bleeding it caused was “like a bloody nose.”

    The teen-ager, Michael P. Fay, said in an interview on Saturday that the four strokes with a rattan cane on May 5 had left three dark-brown scars on his right buttock and four lines each about half an inch wide on his left buttock.

    In giving his first description of the caning, Mr. Fay said that prison officials told him he had shouted, “I’m dying,” when the first stroke was delivered. He said he could not remember crying out.

    He said a prison officer stood beside him and guided him through the ordeal, saying: “O.K., Michael, three left. O.K., Michael, two left. O.K., one more; you’re almost done.”

    The Government of Singapore has defended caning as a normal part of the country’s legal system, but the incident has strained Singapore’s relations with the United States.

    After confessing to vandalism, Mr. Fay was sentenced to four months in jail and six strokes with a half-inch-thick cane on two counts of vandalism and possession of stolen road signs. The sentence was later reduced to four strokes.

    That was in 1994. And Singapore is an ally. Granted, we are not going to war over Jenkin’s Ear. But it is disturbing that the previous administration did squat and that the media (but I repeat myself) is not in full blown 72 point type moral outrage.

    We’ve sure come a long ways away from the days when “I am an American citizen” had the same import as “I am a Roman citizen”.

    I wonder, if you salted the earth in North Korea, would you be able to tell the difference?

    That seems like a reasonable punishment to me.  I don’t know when people started to decide that corporal punishment was wrong, but it was misguided.

    Was there some other complicating factor, like singling out an American for something everyone was doing or any indication he didn’t have due process?  If either of those is the case, then we should do something about it. There’s no reason for an official complaint about the form or severity of the punishment.

    • #11
  12. ibn Abu Member
    ibn Abu
    @ibnAbu

    Joe P (View Comment):
    I would credit it less to the success of the DPRK propaganda machine and more to the failure of progressives to think with any sort of clarity.

    Except that, as I noted, a lot of conservatives are equally guilty, at least of accepting the veracity of the NK account of events.

    • #12
  13. E. Kent Golding Member
    E. Kent Golding
    @EKentGolding

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):
    Tragic. I wonder if, in hindsight, there might have been some benefit from saying he was Jewish. They wouldn’t have had to say the reasons they released him and could have avoided the embarrassment you suggest. Sorry–just wishful thinking with no intent to blame anyone.

    He may have been targeted for being a Jew.  God’s chosen people and all.  No one is as certain of God’s existence as an atheist regime,  although they Hate Him.

    • #13
  14. Shonan Boy Inactive
    Shonan Boy
    @John D. Gibson

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):
    I would hope that there are some guys quietly planning our “payback.”

    This aggression will not stand.

    Doubtful. As much as I’d like our guys to “reach out and touch somebody”, the risk reward calculation is out of whack. I would read some intent into Trump’s statement about China failing to influence the Norks. I expect some things will begin to happen and be not so subtle actions.

    At some point we’re going to have to take the necessary risks and deliver some retribution. North Korea has been getting away with crimes like this with impunity for decades. What they did to Warmbier, kidnapping him and torturing him to death, is state-sponsored murder and akin to an act of war. If the Norks decide to respond by firing their artillery trained on Seoul, it will be carnage, but it will also be the end of Kim Jong Un and his regime. I’m sure they’d consider that before retaliating.

    • #14
  15. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    Shonan Boy (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    ST (View Comment):
    I would hope that there are some guys quietly planning our “payback.”

    This aggression will not stand.

    Doubtful. As much as I’d like our guys to “reach out and touch somebody”, the risk reward calculation is out of whack. I would read some intent into Trump’s statement about China failing to influence the Norks. I expect some things will begin to happen and be not so subtle actions.

    At some point we’re going to have to take the necessary risks and deliver some retribution. North Korea has been getting away with crimes like this with impunity for decades. What they did to Warmbier, kidnapping him and torturing him to death, is state-sponsored murder and akin to an act of war. If the Norks decide to respond by firing their artillery trained on Seoul, it will be carnage, but it will also be the end of Kim Jong Un and his regime. I’m sure they’d consider that before retaliating.

    I’m not so sure about that. Sadam Hussein could have admitted in 2003 that he didn’t have any nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and agreed to full inspections. It would have deprived GW Bush of the most compelling pretext for our attack.

    Said differently, don’t assume your foe is going to act rationally, when they have consistently demonstrated irrational behavior. And I would give the South Koreans first right of approval as they  have the most to lose.

     

    • #15
  16. ibn Abu Member
    ibn Abu
    @ibnAbu

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    And I would give the South Koreans first right of approval as they have the most to lose.

    I’m not unsympathetic to the difficult position the South Koreans are in. Their capital and largest city is literally under the guns of the North. And certainly, the damage that the North could cause to Seoul and the rest of South Korea should weigh heavily in the cost-benefit analysis of any planned retaliatory or preemptive action against the DPRK. But I am not comfortable with the notion of another country, even an ally, having a “right of first refusal” over an action that our government deems necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

    • #16
  17. Steve C. Member
    Steve C.
    @user_531302

    ibn Abu (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    And I would give the South Koreans first right of approval as they have the most to lose.

    I’m not unsympathetic to the difficult position the South Koreans are in. Their capital and largest city is literally under the guns of the North. And certainly, the damage that the North could cause to Seoul and the rest of South Korea should weigh heavily in the cost-benefit analysis of any planned retaliatory or preemptive action against the DPRK. But I am not comfortable with the notion of another country, even an ally, having a “right of first refusal” over an action that our government deems necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

    That’s the difference between being an ally and being a hegemon.

     

    • #17
  18. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    ibn Abu (View Comment):

    Steve C. (View Comment):

    And I would give the South Koreans first right of approval as they have the most to lose.

    I’m not unsympathetic to the difficult position the South Koreans are in. Their capital and largest city is literally under the guns of the North. And certainly, the damage that the North could cause to Seoul and the rest of South Korea should weigh heavily in the cost-benefit analysis of any planned retaliatory or preemptive action against the DPRK. But I am not comfortable with the notion of another country, even an ally, having a “right of first refusal” over an action that our government deems necessary and appropriate to protect its citizens.

    I think the problem is that we have troops based in South Korea that would be used for any attack against North Korea. Attacking North Korea from our bases in South Korea or while our troops are based there without their approval is basically dragging them into a war with us against their will. It is not something we should do to a friend and an equal. South Korea is not our satrap. If we pulled out our troops from S. Korea and then we launched an attack on N. Korea then I would see no reason to give them a say in our action, but given the situation it is our duty to consult with them.

     

    • #18
  19. ibn Abu Member
    ibn Abu
    @ibnAbu

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    I think the problem is that we have troops based in South Korea that would be used for any attack against North Korea. Attacking North Korea from our bases in South Korea or while our troops are based there without their approval is basically dragging them into a war with us against their will. It is not something we should do to a friend and an equal. South Korea is not our satrap. If we pulled out our troops from S. Korea and then we launched an attack on N. Korea then I would see no reason to give them a say in our action, but given the situation it is our duty to consult with them.

    That point is well taken.

    • #19
  20. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    I can’t answer for everyone else, but the part of the story that seemed  plausible to me was that Otto wanted that propaganda poster. Not because I know anything about Otto, but because I definitely would have wanted it myself had I been there (and been young). “What a cool souvenir!” I would think. Oops.

    If they were making up a reason, might they have chosen a more heinous-sounding crime?

     

    • #20
  21. Joe P Member
    Joe P
    @JoeP

    Kate Braestrup (View Comment):
    I can’t answer for everyone else, but the part of the story that seemed plausible to me was that Otto wanted that propaganda poster. Not because I know anything about Otto, but because I definitely would have wanted it myself had I been there (and been young). “What a cool souvenir!” I would think. Oops.

    If they were making up a reason, might they have chosen a more heinous-sounding crime?

    More heinous-sounding crimes would likely require the production of more evidence. The only evidence that the DPRK has released to prove that a crime even occurred is an extremely grainy video in which the perpetrator cannot be clearly identified. That can fly (sort of) for something as minor as a propaganda poster being ripped off of a wall because, like you said, it seems plausible that somebody like Otto maybe could have done it.

    Suppose they framed him instead for murder. Now you have to tell a story that must answer complex questions like: Who is the victim? How were they murdered? How did Otto know the victim? Why would Otto murder this person? Why would Otto murder anybody anywhere? How do we know a North Korean citizen did not commit the murder? When did Otto have an opportunity to murder anyone? Why weren’t any of the other foreigners charged for being complicit in the murder?

    Note that the last three questions also apply to the poster story, but very few people are asking them, because everyone understands that stealing a poster is an inconsequential dumb thing, college age white males do dumb things occasionally, and Otto must have been somewhat dumb for going to North Korea in the first place, so it’s easy to imagine he did it. Murder isn’t an inconsequential dumb thing, so you have to create a much more complex narrative.

    • #21
  22. ibn Abu Member
    ibn Abu
    @ibnAbu

    Joe P (View Comment):
    Note that the last three questions also apply to the poster story, but very few people are asking them, because everyone understands that stealing a poster is an inconsequential dumb thing, college age white males do dumb things occasionally, and Otto must have been somewhat dumb for going to North Korea in the first place, so it’s easy to imagine he did it. Murder isn’t an inconsequential dumb thing, so you have to create a much more complex narrative.

    I think this exactly explains why the Norks used this as the “crime”. They are savvy enough to know that we do not accept the act itself as a punishable offense (certainly not to the extent that they punish such things) but that Americans generally would accept the charge as factually accurate (which by and large has happened, even here in the hallowed halls of Ricochet).

    The inescapable truth appears to be that Otto Warmbier was kidnapped for use by the North Koreans as leverage, that the manufactured bogus charges to give a veneer of legitimacy to the kidnap, and that something* went wrong and left him in a coma. Michelle Malkin (who also, apparently, accepts the veracity of the Nork charges) said it best:

    Warmbier’s thoughtless taunters instantly transformed him into a bigger, badder villain than the barbaric DPRK goons who beat, starve, rape and kill enemies of the state for such offenses as listening to foreign radio broadcasts, possessing Bibles and disrespecting Dear Leader — in Warmbier’s case, by attempting to steal a propaganda sign that read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” as a souvenir.

    *My guess is that while Mr. Warmbier was being held to be traded for some concession, an overly “enthusiastic” agent of the state took the initiative to beat him to death, perhaps for not complying quickly enough with orders barked at him in a language he did not speak and could not be expected to understand. The guards the DPRK uses for these purposes are basically carefully-conditioned, remorseless psychopaths.  As a defecting former prison camp guard noted:

    “We were manipulated not to feel any sympathy for prisoners. We were told they had committed terrible crimes. Now I know they were normal people so I feel very guilty.”

     

    • #22

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