After a stay of 18 months, Otto Warmbier has been allowed to leave North Korea. You may know the story. This University of Virginia student was on a five-day group visit to Pyongyang and surely got the standard, highly sanitized and carefully scripted tour. Still, he would have had some interesting stories to tell friends back in Charlottesville. But Warmbier made a foolish mistake. He went to a staff-only floor of the Yanggakdo International Hotel and grabbed a propaganda wall poster which read, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-Il’s patriotism.” This man, the second of three Kims to rule on the north side of the 38th parallel, had been dead for more than four years at the time. Why did the poster not reference Kim Jong-Eun, the Marshal of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Great Successor, the Sun of the 21st Century and other fulsome honorifics? We just don’t know.
At any rate, Warmbier tried to take the poster, was caught and charged with committing “a hostile act against the state.” At a teary news conference on February 29, 2016, he confessed and begged for mercy. This was all to no avail because he was a useful pawn. His sentence, 15 years of hard labor, might have been influenced by the United States’ long-running sanctions against the DPRK due to its headlong drive to develop a nuclear arsenal. Since Washington and Pyongyang do not have diplomatic relations, other countries did their part to get Warmbier out or at least to ensure humane treatment for him. The world heard nothing more about the case until June 12, 2017. That’s when the North Koreans said they were letting him go for medical reasons. (Three other Americans are still imprisoned there.)
Warmbier was not just sick, he was in a coma, a persistent vegetative state. DPRK officials attributed it to botulism resulting from a sleeping pill he took. But doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center (where he had been brought for treatment) expressed doubt about that and so did Warmbier’s father, who said that he had been terrorized and brutalized. While there is no clear evidence of assault—broken bones, for example—the young man has extensive brain damage associated with a cardiopulmonary event and is unlikely to recover.* Commentators have debated whether his being European-American led to better or worse treatment than others held in the vast North Korean gulag.
These sobering matters are on my mind because I occasionally think about participating in the Pyongyang Marathon. This event was first held in 1981, and women began taking part three years later. There have, however, been gaps. No race was run in 1987, 1990 and 1991, and the winners in 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998 and 1999 are not known. Make of that what you will, but also note that the North Korean famine which killed 3.5 million citizens peaked in 1997. The Pyongyang Marathon was opened to international runners in 2000. The course (four 10K laps, plus a fraction) starts and finishes at 114,000-seat Rungnado May Day Stadium and includes a stretch alongside the Taedong River, past the Arch of Triumph and the gigantic (22 meters high) statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, before which runners are encouraged to genuflect. Easily visible are the Juche Tower and the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which has never housed a guest in its 30 years of existence; it is called, rather unkindly, "the hotel of doom." There is a full-course marathon, a half-marathon and a 10K. About 1,600 people take part currently, of whom two-thirds are foreigners—all of whom, I think it is fair to presume, are welcomed in this cash-starved country.
Only in conjunction with certain tour companies can a foreigner sign up for and run in the Pyongyang Marathon. I yearn to have this experience, but I dare not try. The first reason is that I have my visa renewed every two years at the Seoul Immigration Office. It is sometimes a nerve-wracking ordeal. A DPRK stamp on my passport might very well mean the end of my stay in Korea. But I can picture eventualities far more disastrous. Am I being paranoid in thinking that perhaps the North Korean authorities would learn displeasing things about me? I have written very publicly and very critically about Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Eun in my books and on my web site. Some would say it’s a certainty, others just a slight possibility, that North Korean officials would have read my comments. Since I live in a free country, I have documented my February 2012 visit to Geoje, on the south coast. There I toured a former Korean War POW camp, outside of which stood life-size statues of the key figures in that conflict—Mao Zedong, Douglas MacArthur, Syngman Rhee, Joseph Stalin, Mathew Ridgeway, Harry Truman and Kim. I went straight to the latter and, since nobody else was around, I spat in his face and cursed: “You stupid idiot! This is all your doing!” If the North Koreans knew—and they might know—about this matter, I would probably get far worse treatment than the lamentable Otto Warmbier.
* Warmbier died at 2:20 p.m. on Monday, June 19, 2017