What does Otto Warmbier’s case say about adventure travel?

We at Surf North Korea felt compelled to write this article following an article posted on www.theinertia.com which commented about the recent news of Otto Warmbier’s sentencing in the DPRK and what that could mean for tourism to North Korea. That article, whilst rightfully sympathetic towards Warmbier’s plight, in our opinion failed to contextualise his actions. Each year, thousands of tourists (many of which U.S. citizens) enter and leave North Korea without issue – a matter which seems to have been forgotten following the recent media frenzy. Here’s our opinion on the matter:

Surf North Korea explicitly does not condone the draconian sentence handed down to Otto Warmbier, especially in view of his relative youth and the victimless nature of his crime. It is evident from the tone of his confession that he had deeply underestimated how far the consequences of his actions would reach. He is neither an imperialist aggressor with political machinations nor is he an irreproachable adolescent. People do misguided things all the time, young people often do even more misguided things. Unfortunately, Warmbier’s moment of madness could not have come at a worse time for U.S-DPRK relations. For that, his actions are automatically politicised. His plight is particularly striking, at a time when stories of nuclear tests and joint-military exercises pervade the media landscape. He puts a startlingly human face on long-standing tension between the U.S. and North Korea. Both sides know that his image can signify different things based on interpretations and they will invariably exploit him to justify each other’s means and ends. But this particular case must not distract from the deeper issue which plagues this drawn out game of geopolitics; that the crucial dialogue between both countries is currently faltering.

Mark Twain succinctly captured the sublime value of of travel when he wrote that ‘Broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one’s lifetime’. It is precisely the promise of broadened horizons that beckons so many of us to undertake a journey abroad. Experienced tourists can attest to travel’s inherent uncertainties and risks. Travel demands a careful balance of calculated risk, personal judgement and knowledge of the facts at hand. Adventure unquestionably favours the brave and all travellers accept those risks in the quest to forge new and profound life experiences. It is a given fact that threats to travellers pervade all corners of the earth; whether they are disease, civil unrest or war. For better or worse, the world has not been entirely homogenised; transformed into a harmless playground the hapless globetrotter to crash upon. As self-determining adults, we accept those risks, make value judgements and eventually decide if the lemon is worth the squeeze.

Major trips to different cultures uncover our shared humanity. They reveal that – despite political, geographical or cultural separation – we really aren’t that different from one another. Following even the briefest interactions with locals, commonalities quickly emerge. People who first appeared so foreign hold the same expectations of life – you might be hard-pressed to find someone who isn’t seeking happiness.

Despite living in a increasingly global society where everyone on the planet ostensibly has; had a Happy Meal, can name their favourite episode of The Simpsons and can recall the ups and downs which beset Ross and Rachel’s relationship, there still remain diverging cultural and societal values. As travellers we need to be attentive and accommodating to those differences. The traveller status is not necessarily an exemption from local laws and customs. To contextualise this point, it is pertinent to include several recent examples from around the world where travellers did not take this into account and sadly faced unpleasant consequences:

In 2016 in Jerusalem, Israel, a US tourist was arrested after illegally spending a night in UNESCO world heritage site with biblical significance. He claimed to be digging for hidden treasure.

In 2016, a group of tourists were arrested at Machu Picchu, Peru, after posing naked for photos. The historical site is regarded as a religious sanctuary by local population.

In 2014, a backpacker was detained and deported from Sri Lanka for ‘hurting others’ religious feelings’ . Tattoos of Buddhist iconography are regarded as culturally insensitive in the majority ethnic Sinhalese country.

Each of these three crimes were arguably victimless, but they were nonetheless transgressions against local expectations of behaviour. Whether your personal values align with those expectations or not, they still remain in place. Not every destination exists in a vacuum and tourists cannot necessarily expect preferential treatment simply because their home country has a different legal system.

The Korean peninsula witnessed one of the most violent conflicts of the 20th century, the civilian casualties were massive and it nearly pushed the world to the brink of a nuclear war. It is the duty of every traveller to North Korea to see that the scars of that conflict still shape that society. We might all then have the foresight to understand that any misdeeds could have a deeper political and historical context – with the potential to be interpreted as a hostile act. We hope that calmer heads will prevail and both governments can work towards a peaceful solution that promotes peace and stability in this uniquely special region of the globe. This issue needs people from all backgrounds and cultures to come together in a mutual dialogue which recognises our commonalities and respects our differences.

We know that when visiting the DPRK the utmost sensitivity to cultural values is needed and we recognise that the weight of history potentially shapes every meeting and interaction. Therefore, we have the obligation to act as ambassadors for our own nations, only then can we construct a positive, mutually beneficial dialogue on an equal footing.

As surfers, we have seen time and again how surfing, as a shared activity, speaks thousands of times louder than any words or rhetoric. The universal language of surf creates a silent dialogue that cuts through any stereotypes or preconceptions. Surfing isn’t about politics or trade sanctions or nuclear proliferation. It’s precisely the outsider status of the sport that makes it so uniquely personal yet universal. We’re truly all equal before a wave and the sense of freedom in the open ocean should be what connects us. Surf North Korea was founded with this ethos and treats the sport as a way to build bridges and develop a communication on a neutral footing. But, we do this carefully, knowing full-well that the weight of history and the grave mistakes of the past taint every interaction. Bit by bit, surfing is opening up the people of North Korea to the wider world, but this a slow and careful evolution that calls for intelligence, sensitivity and openness. Therefore, we encourage fellow travellers with those qualities to join us on our journey.

The quest for adventure continues whilst the universal desire to meet new cultures and forge new friendships remains. We hope that each and every traveller stays safe, wherever they are.