Otto Warmbier’s Deadly Ordeal Is No Reason to Restrict Travel to North Korea

It would have been a good story to tell if Otto Warmbier had successfully made off with that North Korean propaganda poster. It could have been the sort of low-reward, high-risk tale that defines many a good yarn years after the fact. Getting caught and killed by the thuggish regime he was trying to tweak thoroughly ruined the story, but gambling against that danger is what would have made it worth telling.

And now the Trump administration is considering heading off any future such misadventures by banning Americans from traveling to North Korea. For our own good, it claims.

But the difference between adventure and stupid prank is often just the outcome—and that outcome is never a sure thing.

When Spanish spy Ali Bey el Abbassi and, later, British explorer Richard Burton posed as Muslim pilgrims to visit Mecca, they risked their lives to satisfy their curiosity about a place they were forbidden to enter. Had they been caught, their efforts might have made them the forgotten stars of the 19th-century equivalent of beheading videos rather than celebrated authors and adventurers.

Then there was Ewart S. Grogan, a college student who took a break from his studies to walk, with his friend, Arthur H. Sharp, from South Africa to Egypt—largely so Grogan could impress a girl. Along the way they risked disease and cannibals, hunted lions (and sometimes brutally abused the locals in the unthinking way of Victorian-era British aristocrats).

“The amusement of the whole thing is that a youth from Cambridge during his vacation should have succeeded in doing that which the ponderous explorers of the world have failed to accomplish,” Cecil Rhodes wrote in a letter published as an introduction to the inevitable resulting book.

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Let’s just say that, at any step of the way, the epic traverse of Africa could have ended in any number of sticky ways—or just on the point of a very sharp stick.

We could also consider Theodore Roosevelt’s impressive post-presidential Amazonian exploration, chronicled in Candice Millard’s River of Doubt. The company was plagued by starvation, poor planning, dangerous wildlife, medical emergencies, and faced the possibility of massacre by an Indian tribe that had to be persuaded of benign intentions.

Arguably, the whole scheme was rooted in a disappointed politician’s elaborate suicide attempt—one that ultimately spared him, but cost the lives of others. It also substantially expanded knowledge of the region.

Or how about the nine-day flight around the world of Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager on a single tank of fuel? That adventure earned everybody involved trophies, fame, and the display of their aircraft, Voyager, at the Smithsonian Institution. But it could have ended with extensive searches and a greasy patch drifting on the surface of the ocean, or a trail of debris down the side of a hill somewhere.

Is any given activity a stupid conceit or a grand adventure? It’s all in whether it ends up as a thrilling tale or a wince-inducing cautionary one. Surviving a journey with a manuscript in hand usually yields a different assessment than returning from it in a box.

Was the risk worth the reward? That’s really going to depend on whose yardstick we use. Adrenaline junkies and people driven by burning curiosity are likely to offer very different answers than those who see every sharp corner as a peril in need of a good cushion. Trekking through wilderness, climbing into experimental aircraft, violating taboos, and taunting tyrants all offer upsides and downsides that lend themselves only to subjective assessment.

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Which is to say, there’s no objective answer to such questions and, therefore, there can’t possibly be a one-size-fits-all policy that makes any sense beyond stuffing one set of values down the throats of dissenters.

“Travel propaganda lures far too many people to North Korea,” insists House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-CA). “This is a regime that regularly kidnaps foreign citizens and keeps 120,000 North Koreans in barbaric gulags. The United States should ban tourist travel to North Korea.”

Not quite. From the undeniable fact that the North Korean regime is brutal and barbaric, it’s a stretch to conclude that Americans would only travel there because they’ve been lured by “travel propaganda.” They may, instead, be curious and risk-tolerant—willing to run the gauntlet in order to see the situation for themselves. It’s presumptuous as hell for risk-averse types like Royce to substitute their own instincts for the contrary preferences of adventurers who see the situation differently. (It’s presumptuous as hell for governments to tell people where they can or can’t travel for any reason, but that’s another column.)

Not that risk-averse Americans should then be forced to shoulder extra costs when adventures go south. If experience-seekers want to satisfy their curiosity and adrenaline cravings in the many dangerous spots of the world, they should do so of their own accord, without expectation that the Marines (or some equivalent) will come to their rescue when the natives prove restless, the wildlife hungry, the weather uncooperative, or circumstances otherwise go to hell. Taking the tiger by the tail and then figuring out how to let go is and should be part of the overall adventure experience.

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A strict caveat emptor policy toward people’s tolerance of peril and taste for dangerous journeys is the only way to make the world a fit place for both risk-takers and the risk-averse. And leaving the door open for potential disasters is the only way to maintain the opportunity for adventure, since they go hand in hand.

We should all regret Otto Warmbier’s untimely death—and that his gamble didn’t pay off and he didn’t gain a great story to tell. And we should leave the way clear for others so inclined to take similar chances in the future.

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