Otto Frederick Warmbier was arrested on January the 2nd 2016 for the crime of stealing a motivational poster from the staff only area of his hotel. In most other countries, such a minor misdemeanour would result in only a telling off. In North Korea, this chain on events has led to Warmbier being paraded sobbing on international television apologising profusely for his crime, stating implausibly that a church in America had asked him to steal the sign as a 'trophy' in exchange for a second hand car.
It seems if Otto had played his prank at a time where North Korean relations with the rest of the world were less tense, then according toTIME he would probably have received nothing than the expected dressing drown. Sadly for Otto his visit to North Korea coincided with the regime's plan to detonate a hydrogen bomb a few days later meaning having an American hostage as leverage would be most welcome. Indeed, whenever North Korea wants something from the United States, someone from the country is arrested for anything from leaving a bible in a bathroom to having fought in the Korean War 60 years previously.
This pattern began when Euna Lee and Laura Ling two American journalists were abducted by North Korean border guards on the Chinese side of the border whilst reporting a story on North Koreans fleeing the country. In his book, The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future North Korea expert and former White House official Victor Cha recounts that the only way the Obama administration could achieve the release of the two journalists was to send a senior former official. At first Al Gore was offered, but a former Vice-President was seen as too junior so Bill Clinton was sent instead, and according to Cha the sole reason on the American side for his visit was to get the North Koreans to let Ling and Lee go. From this the North Koreans have concluded that hostage taking is an acceptable political tactic in its struggle with the West.
The fact that you might be arbitrarily detained for geopolitical reasons should be enough to put off most travellers, but destinations such as North Korea should be avoided by tourists for moral reasons as well as ones of self-preservation. A brief purview of North Korean history takes in millions dying in famines, disease epidemics, gulags and purges which are of the regimes own making. There is nothing wrong with visiting the sites of mankind's bestial inhumanity after the fact whether at a World War Two concentration camp or somewhere further afield such as the killing fields of Cambodia, after the regime involved has fallen and the site has been dedicated in memory of the innocent victims of the crime. North Korea however is a crime against humanity that is still in progress and to visit whilst people are still being sent to gulags for watching and listening to Western and South Korean movies and songs is to be complicit in their suffering.
You can go there and you can see whatever the authorities in the state wish to show you and be kept unaware of whatever they wish to keep hidden from you, and the chances are you'll be allowed to leave (unless you are unfortunate enough to inadvertently time your trip around the time of an nuclear test) and return to the free world. The people you came to gawp at as if they were animals in a zoo however, will be still be left to be living miserable lives long when you've forgotten your trip to North Korea. It's the same for other tourist destinations that visited only for the thrill of viewing totalitarianism as a pleasant excursion to write up on TripAdvisor as if you were going to somewhere as benign as Torbay for two weeks instead of the most despicable dictatorship on Earth.
In the end, I am reminded of the many articles of James Bloodworth on the realities of life in Cuba and of one in particular in the the Spectator on the tourism trade there which he accurately portrays as poverty fetishism. In places like North Korea and Cuba, it's not just a fetish for poverty, but a dictatorship fetish, vicariously viewed as some sort of ironic joke where the oppressed masses and the prison that is their country are just actors and landmarks to be photographed with as if they are Snow White and Space Mountain at Disneyland. Otto Frederick Warmbier will be released one day after a suitably impressive American dignitary has come to usher him home, the same cannot be said for the majority of the people living under the Kim Regime though, which is all the more reason not to be complicit in their suffering.