When the Democratic (?) People’s Republic of Korea passed sentence on a tourist on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, they once again demonstrated to the world that they are about the best example around of the term, “Evil Empire.” Some weeks ago, it seems, a 21 year old American man, a University of Virginia undergraduate student no less, demonstrated that Americans can be about the best example of the term, “clueless arrogance.” While I truly have sympathy for the family and friends of Otto Warmbier, it is hard not to slowly shake my head and solemnly intone, “Did he really think what he was about to do was nothing but a harmless, college stunt to show his girlfriend back home how gutsy he is, and that if he was actually caught, that the government of North Korea would simply wag a finger at him and say, ‘Ah, these college kids’?”
Apparently, he was caught trying to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy and memento of his trip. Stealing a propaganda banner from a country that was ready to launch nukes over a Hollywood movie that made fun of their (tyrant for life) president. Stealing a propaganda banner from a country that uses propaganda along with threats of nuclear holocaust as their primary method of communication with the outside world. Hell, why not go for spectacular? Make a sidewalk chalk portrait of Mohamed in downtown Tehran?
I have to wonder why anyone, other than a dedicated diplomat on a directed mission from his government would visit North Korea, anyway. I know many people do, but why? The government of North Korea apparently wonders the same thing since they are ready to arrest and accuse about anyone that does visit of being spies, even dedicated diplomats on directed missions.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s the thrill of seeing how close a person can dare to get to the crumbly edge of the precipice, sort of like plummeting to the earth while wearing a suit about as aerodynamic as a flying squirrel and zooming between rock pillars or down-hill skiing in prohibited areas where a person can see if he can skim the moss off of tree bark without exchanging an arm for it. Is it that some people, mostly Americans, it seems, have the idea that they can do whatever they want when they travel about the world because they just want to make the most of their trip and they don’t really mean to cause harm and they can do stuff like that at home without spending the next fifteen years at hard labor in prison. And why are the edges of precipices allowed to get so crumbly, anyway?
When are Americans, and anyone else, going to realize there are places in this world that are plain not welcoming. These places don’t operate with the same rules and values as here at home. They sometimes do things to outsiders that you have to wonder isn’t simply a deliberate provocation for war, but is more probably just more fuel in their furnace of bluff and bluster to make the world believe they are too terrible to mess with. They may even believe it, themselves. But the thing is, because they can do it, they will. And if a clueless tourist happens to get caught in the tangle, well, he just adds value to the game.
Listen, now, kids, because this is important, and you may be tested later. When you travel abroad, take your wonder and your awe with you because there are some marvelous things to experience in the world. But leave behind your arrogance, your juvenile sense of humor, your daring-do. People in most countries around the world have a sense of national pride at least as great as that of Americans, and usually justifiably so. Don’t belittle their country. Experience it and admire it, maybe even brag about your own, but not at the expense of theirs. Their own sense of humor may be very different from yours, so don’t expect or demand that your joke is appreciated. Listen to their jokes and learn a new culture that may be as good as what you left back home, and is most likely much older. And please, please, please leave behind the idea that you can–should–are expected to–leave behind a mark to prove you were there. It is so not cool to make your own carving next to one left by a neolithic ancestor or etch your own version of runes on a Stonehenge monolith. I can almost hear the plaintiff cry, “Why is everyone mad at me? It was just a joke. Don’t you people have a sense of humor? All I did was draw a stupid mustache on an old picture that wasn’t all that good, anyway.” as the guards at the Louvre in Paris escort a clueless tourist away from the Mona Lisa.