Memos from Pyongyang: A North Korean Perspective on the Otto Warmbier Case

By | July 10, 2017 | No Comments

North Korean diplomatic corps prior to a photo with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, July 2015. | Image: Chosun Central TV.

Prior to last week’s seemingly successful North Korean ICBM test launch, the tragic death of American tourist Otto Warmbier garnered an similarly incandescent response. The demise of the young American in North Korean custody — at any rate, so very recently “in” North Korean custody that it made no functional difference that he was “out” of said custody when he passed away — prompted renewed calls for Americans to be banned from traveling to North Korea altogether.

Unlike the missile test, where the North Korean state was practically force-feeding global media with image after image, information from within the DPRK about the Warmbier case is in short supply. It has not been possible to reduce our information asymmetries vis-a-vis the DPRK with respect to this case. Adam Cathcart approaches this informational lacuna by projecting a new front on Warmbier case, seeking clarity not on what it all means to us, but on what it might mean in Pyongyang. — Christopher Green, Co-editor 

Memos from Pyongyang: A North Korean Perspective on the Otto Warmbier Case

by Adam Cathcart

The arrest, show trial, and fifteen-year sentence of the American tourist Otto Warmbier by the North Korean state was bad enough. But the repatriation of this young man in a comatose condition from North Korea to the United States last month and his subsequent death fostered what has felt like a new level of revulsion for, and condemnation against, the Kim Jong-un regime. The events brought harsh responses from top US officials, further solidified pre-existing trends toward a Congressional travel ban for Americans, and laid the groundwork in US public opinion for yet more sanctions against the DPRK.

Judging from the tsunami of writing about the case, the working assumption appears to be that from Pyongyang’s perspective, these developments ought to look uniformly bad. North Korea made an error, lied about how Otto Warmbier became comatose, and is probably now worried about the fallout to the comparatively lucrative tourist industry, if not waiting for various countermeasures by the Trump administration.

But is the assumption true? How does the aftermath of the Warmbier case look from within North Korea?

To answer these questions, I have borrowed a technique from the North Korean state media, described by Anna Fifield as “channelling” the voice of an author well removed from present experience. (See “North Korea scolds Obama by adopting the voice of Abraham Lincoln,” Washington Post, April 16, 2016). What follows is that imagined memo, written from the perspective of a relatively progressive North Korean junior diplomat who has been asked to provide advice to his or her department head about how the DPRK should navigate forward.


9 July 2017, Pyongyang, DPR Korea

Dear Foreign Minister:

The weekly summaries we receive of foreign media indicate that the death of the American student and tourist Otto Warmbier has created a kind of backlash. The coverage by the Washington Post has been particularly comprehensive, and negative toward us. According to the Post, several US State Department officials attended Warmbier’s funeral and the case received personal attention from President Trump. (Following standard procedures, I have only seen approved Korean paper memos summarising these translated articles, and am awaiting departmental approval to see the originals online).

As we look forward to more negotiations with the US, does the death of one single American tourist make our situation more difficult?

Of course not. We have deep experience in stringing along the Americans (and the Japanese, and the South Koreans) with such cases when they demand further investigation. Remember Cho Ho Pyong, a traitor who tried to run away with his family in the early 1970s? We said he stole guns and a boat and was killed (along with his wife and kids) in a shootout along the coast. Adoption of our responses to the Japanese so-called “abduction” cases is one ready-made way forward, if challenged. And as we have known since before the Korean War, American moral sentiment is loud but shallow; we can simply wait them out.

Our analysis shows that the Trump administration has done a particularly sloppy job of laying the groundwork for global support on the basis of what happened to Warmbier, or depicting our treatment of the young man as an instance of “human rights abuses” in our socialist paradise. Indeed, the American President has only found it possible to utter the words “North Korean human rights” when pressured to by the South Korean puppet president. Thanks to Trump, there is no longer any “Special Envoy for Human Rights in the DPRK” and it seems unlikely that there will be one, because Tillerson is slashing the diplomatic budget and hollowing out our counterpart agency in Washington, D.C. Naturally we are not going to bring this up in negotiations (‘Thanks, Rex’ is not a sentence any of us concerned with promotion would be willing to utter), but it has been advantageous for us; Trump has been far weaker on the issue than Obama or even George W. Bush.

Otto Warmbier under the gaze of a North Korean photographer, January 2016. | Image: Chosun Central Television.

How should we deal with requests by the Americans for more information about Warmbier’s deteriorated condition? Following standard procedure, our section has been given no information whatsoever about it. Indeed, in talking for the past year with American interlocutors like Bill Richardson (or Tony Namkung, who was in Pyongyang this past spring), we could tell them nothing, because we knew nothing. It is always better that way. So we rely completely on the public record, rather than sending a bureaucrat over the the Ministry of State Security to ask for answers.

At the end of the day, we are the biggest victims.

Accordingly, we have instructed our cadre to refresh their memories about Warmbier’s trial testimony. This way, any complaints from the Americans or Europeans can be met with a barrage of details about Warmbier’s sinister ties to missionaries and CIA-funded secret societies at the University of Virginia. (This includes the Swedes, who had more information than most about Warmbier, and whose recent Special Envoy was given access to our top players.) If necessary, we can direct Uriminzokkiri to release some of our own internal footage of him during his tour, rendered more sinister with the help of scary music and interviews with North Koreans who interacted with him both before and after his crime was revealed. This is part of the extensive toolbox we have developed for dealing with defectors, after all, so we might as well be ready to use it.

Domestically, we approve of the way that Warmbier has been contextualised: It should be obvious to any North Korean that had he not been caught, the American spy was eager to start nothing less than a coup against our Supreme Leader. If more foreign broadcasts or leaflets come in with respect to this case, we can alter lecture content to emphasize foreign subversion, and highlight again the ties between missionary activity and imperialism.

In the meantime, as we aim to expand our tourism sector under the wise leadership of our Respected Leader, whose bravery in the face of these plots and support of the luxury skiing sector knows no limits. Particular care needs to be taken with tourism applications by Americans and those from allied imperialist countries, and their behavior on organised tours needs to be more tightly monitored than ever. Local tour guides might be given temporary access to a small handful of otherwise poisonous articles from the New York Times and Washington Post about our country which might be referenced in conversations with visitors from imperialist countries, so that they can better instruct them about how to treat posters and slogans. It may also be wise to test the waters for increased tourism from Non-Aligned Countries to offset American tourist dollars, although Chinese tourism numbers still dwarf all the others.

Finally, the small number of foreign academics who are likely to publish impressions after visiting our country should be assured of a few things. Above all, they should be given the impression that sanctions are not working; visits to the Kwangbok Department Store should be offered to these guests as often as possible, visits to new buildings should be doubled, and traffic jams should be arranged at least once during their visits. Second, they should be told privately (perhaps over drinks, at a more relaxed time) that Otto Warmbier did not simply break the laws of our country; his failure to cooperate with both the investigation and his public confession was responsible for his long sentence. His performance on March 16, 2016, was wholly unsatisfactory. But no information should be given about how he fell into a coma, because, again, we still have no idea how this happened and have no plans to approach the Ministry of State Security about it.

A North Korean worker returned from China cries at a May 3, 2016, press conference in Pyongyang calling for the return of 12 waitresses who defected from Ningbo to Seoul. | Image: KCNA/Wangyi News.

This may sound like a major concession, but we need to restore the impression among potential American tourists that if they submit themselves fully to the justice and benevolence of the DPRK, they can still be retrieved in full health by a former US administration official. Our sources indicate that Jimmy Carter is still flying and available, and Bill Richardson will drop everything and come to Pyongyang if allowed. Moreover, our consistent work with CNN reporter Will Ripley and his willingness to more or less accept whoever or whatever we put in front of his cameras — on April 20, 2016, he was in Pyongyang interviewing waitresses who worked with the 12 women who just had been abducted from Ningbo — means that we could get control of the international press coverage in a better way. But at the end of the day, just changing the subject is probably our best bet.

In conclusion, our unit has been hitting its goals with moderate enthusiasm in the aftermath of two speed campaigns last year. Everyone can do much better, of course, and I myself have spent each of the last three weekends away from my family and engaged in long-overdue work for the department. We are all looking forward to helping with the summer harvest and further celebrating the successful peaceful launch of our country’s missile which has the Americans quaking in their boots, even Breitbart, the translated summaries about which still give me the chills. Let’s hope they are not as crazy as they say we are.

As the General says, “Appuro!”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.