Illustrated by Phalaen Chang.
San Marino High School

Commentary: Lessons from a trip that ended in tragedy

In all of his pictures in North Korea, Otto Warmbier is smiling brightly at the camera, a mirror image of who his family, friends, and teachers remembered him to be, a bright student with an “adventurous spirit.” Yet, he returned home a little over a year later, unresponsive and left the world leaving everyone wondering, “What happened?” How could a seemingly carefree trip turn into a tragedy?

Warmbier was sentenced for 15 years of hard labor after being allegedly arrested for committing a “hostile act” in January of 2016. Originally in North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, no one could have predicted that the trip would end on such a tragic note.

Robert R. King, a former State Department special envoy for North Korea human rights issues who handled Mr. Warmbier’s case, told the New York Times that North Koreans appeared to be very concerned about the health of the Americans they held and that they “don’t want anyone to die on their watch…[which] is why the Otto Warmbier case is unusual.”

Aside from the questionable explanation of botulism and complications with a sleeping pill, North Korea has not offered any other explanation for his condition.

In response to his death, many have offered their condolences, but many have also condemned Warmbier for his actions, saying he should not have visited North Korea in the first place, arguing that his fate could not be blamed on anyone other than himself and a sense of self-entitlement.

“I don’t feel sorry when a bullfighter gets gored by the bull and I couldn’t care less when these people visit places like North Korea and this happens!!!!” one Facebook user wrote. Many others joined in, blaming Warmbier for visiting North Korea in the first place.

Others stand up for Warmbier, arguing that no matter what he did, he did not deserve what he got.

Despite the varying stances on the issue, the tragedy has taught us far more than “Don’t visit North Korea.” It has reminded us to be grateful for the wealth of freedoms we enjoy in the U.S. that other countries may not have. Had Warmbier survived, he would have been able to exercise his rights again, having finally been released from the oppressive isolation of a country infamous for its violations of human rights. That would have been nothing more than a learning experience to reflect on, a dark chapter of his life that he could do without.

Though his return home did not end in celebration, his release reminds us that those who are detained have the hope of being released. But what about those trapped in North Korea? What about those who suffer still at the hands of some other country whose government exists for something other than the protection of the wellbeing of its citizens?

While there may not be a promising answer right now, instead of pushing the blame around, we should continue to look into the events to untangle exactly what happened that led to such a tragedy. Although there will never be a way to reform all corrupt governments and rescue all the victims, Otto Warmbier’s story opens our eyes and allows our sheltered nation to finally hold out its hands and connect with the injustices that are being committed daily.