The Secret Citizens

The Secret Citizens

Image Source: Creative Commons

Image Source: Creative Commons

Deborah Porter, Foreign Policy Contributor

Opinion - Just 17 months ago, a young student by the name of Otto Warmbier was accused and convicted of remove North Korean propaganda from his hotel. Just a couple weeks ago, he was returned home in a coma and later succumbed to injuries. I would prefer to say the saddening part of this story was the young man’s death, or perhaps the circumstances he experienced. However, in this story, North Korea is not the real threat to our national security. The real threat is there are some people who thought he deserved his tortuous punishment. That perception is the most dangerous thought of all.

North Korea became a danger to the United States in 1945, when the Korean Peninsula was split between the Communist north and the southern republic. Now, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has become one of the most visible threats to US continental safety, second only to perhaps ISIS’s terrorist attacks. As a nation, it is imperative that we send our men and women to spy on North Korea. How will we know the Korean nuclear capabilities if we do not send spies to discover their secrets? Thus, it is quite imperative that US operatives be able to enter the belligerent nation, conveying information back to Langley and the Pentagon. While the U.S. can use other methods to uncover information, secret contacts and info on the ground are imperative to our safety. 

In light of the need for spies and information, the way Warmbier was received by our loving, tolerant society was disturbing, if not downright dangerous. The way we treat our citizens returning from dangerous missions must be identical to how our spies are treated, otherwise North Korea can easily distinguish and destroy our spies. After all, our spies have chosen dangerous jobs, and the international community is reluctant to condemn the punishments given to foreign intelligence officers, such as with the Chinese executions of US spies. On the other hand, the international community pities the innocent civilians mistaken for spies and treated poorly. If countries in good international standing want to retain international prestige, they must clearly identify espionage agents so they can punish them. 

Every nation has to walk the thin line of diplomacy or war, and needs intelligence to choose between the two. Wambier may have been just a student carrying imperative intelligence slipped into the recesses of his luggage, with or without his knowledge. He may have been a deeply undercover spy, refusing to break under Korea’s torture. Most likely, he was simply a young student, not connected to U.S. foreign intelligence, who was picked up by the brutal regime. Whatever his situation, he passed away after returning home, likely after intense neurological torture. Our nation should have given him proper respect, as a US citizen and potentially a brave spy.

“North Korea Proves Your White Male Privilege Is Not Universal” by Huffington Post. Warmbier “got exactly what he deserved” wrote a professor. “Otto Warmbier deserved to be beaten into a coma and die” said a 4chan user. These were the reactions of ordinary people to Warmbier’s situation. Regardless of his guilt, the punishment did not fit the crime. According to reports from doctors in America, the boy was in a “persistent vegetative state”, and would never have fully recovered due to a significant loss of brain tissue. North Korea made the decision to treat him as a spy, torturing him far beyond the limits of human ability. If he was a spy, we should respect his service and ultimate sacrifice. If only a tourist, we should respect his fight to stay alive until he finally returned home. Especially as Americans, we should respect both spies’ and students’ desire for information, and where that desire takes them. We should never say that a man who was taken to the brink of death deserved his end. As recipients of the protections of the United States, it is only natural that we respect those who made decisions differently.

Spies are brave soldiers who may never receive recognition for their efforts. Veterans have their own benefits, as they fight in the open. Daring journalists reporting from war-torn areas receive acclaim and dishonor for their successes and failures. An entire life kept secret is a great sacrifice that we may never see. We will not know how many lives they saved until decades old files are released to the public. Their sacrifice for us all goes unrecognized, but they make it nonetheless. It is time that our returning citizens receive basic support and love from our nation, if not for them personally, then for the spies who tirelessly work on our behalf.

Follow this author on Twitter @UCDavisEngineer

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