By Doug Bandow
It doesn’t take long after arriving in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to realize that you’re not in Kansas anymore. There are multiple portraits of deceased Great Leader Kim Il-sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. Every North Korean official wears a pin picturing one or both Kims. Customs personnel count books carried in by visitors. All this before reaching the terminal arrivals area.
Of course, there’s a dark side to what seems almost comic to most Westerners. The imprisonment and death of Otto Warmbier offers a stark warning of the risk of visiting the DPRK. Three Americans remain in custody, along with 13 other foreigners. Behind them is the brutal oppression of an entire population.
However, the vast majority of visitors to the North, including about 1000 Americans a year, have no problems. In fact, getting arrested requires a misstep, though it may seem trivial in the Western mind, such as stealing a political poster.
North Koreans set the rules and say they only punish intentional offenses. This claim was surprisingly backed by the head of a Christian NGO which works in the DPRK. She told me the group had investigated every case in which an American was incarcerated; everyone had done something to attract the regime’s ill attention. That doesn’t mean they deserved punishment, of course, but suggests Pyongyang wasn’t trolling for hostages, as suggested by some.
Even with a scripted program visiting the North is educational. My latest trip—I first went in 1992—reaffirmed the fact that DPRK officials are neither crazy nor suicidal. The system is unusual at best, bizarre at worst. But an internal logic drives foreign as well as domestic policy.
The Leader (whether Great and Dear, as in the past, or Supreme, like today) is central; everything and everyone revolves around him. The people are one with the Leader. The regime is equated with the (united) nation and must be preserved. Outside threats must be met with force. Most North Korean actions, however strange their appearance and whatever their human cost, are consistent with these precepts.