When news headlines around the world broke out that Otto Warmbier, 21-year-old American student from Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea because of “crimes against the state,” I could not feel sorry for him at all.
While the prospect of working 15 years in a labour camp where prisoners are barely fed and routinely tortured is very disturbing, why do we now suddenly care? There is an estimate of over 100,000 people in labour camps in North Korea who have spent their lives in the same country’s work camps which have been accused of housing rape, and where, according to the Human Rights Watch, people have forced labour, starvation, and guard abuse. For some reason, though, we can only think of Warmbier.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying that the American student deserved the punishment he got. We all know that North Korea is a scary place, but that’s the point. If you and I (and most, if not all, of the world) are aware of the harshness of the dictatorship, from having read Escape from Camp 14 or even from James Franco’s (awful) movie The Interview, why did Warmbier put himself in that position?
It’s not too far-fetched to expect someone to research what they are and are not allowed to do in a tyrannical dictatorship before going to one for vacation, or at least to be extra cautious of what they do while in the country. Even then, even if Warmbier hadn’t bothered to research the laws of the country, stealing a political propaganda poster simply seems like the wrong thing to do in North Korea. So why did he do it?
The issue is entitlement. It seems like Westerners feel entitled to special treatment when it comes to committing crimes abroad. Because of their countries’ ‘importance,’ perhaps Westerners feel like they have something to rely on if they get caught.
Just because you’re American does not mean that North Korean laws will not apply to you.
The same is true for Lindsay Sandiford, a British woman currently waiting on the death row for carrying 10.6 lb of cocaine into Indonesia. Indonesia is known to implement harsh punishments to drug traffickers; yet every couple of months we hear of a foreigner asking for clemency.
Am I in favour of the death penalty? Not at all. I think the death penalty, especially for drug-related crimes, should be abolished everywhere. Do I feel sorry for Sandiford, who admitted having carried all that cocaine into Bali? Not really. This is especially because Sandiford has the privilege of having international news outlets covering her case, while Indonesian people don’t.
The same can be said for North Korea. While international news coverage is what North Korea least wants for its thousands of prisoners, what about the many innocent North Koreans who are unjustly arrested for crimes? The American media’s self-entitled pity coverage seems to be what Westerners rely upon when they commit crimes in undemocratic countries. Sadly, this doesn’t always work.
Even though Indonesia and North Korea are very different places — Indonesia is not a dictatorship, after all — both Sandiford and Warmbier should have known better. Both their sentences are inhumane and wrong, but why should the laws in those countries not apply to them?