A US man who was arrested in North Korea last year has died a week after his early release and return to the United States. Mr. Warmbier, a 22-years old student, was arrested in January 2016 in Pyongyang and accused of having stolen a propaganda sign at his hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for this “crime”, and in North Korea “hard labor” means just that.

Warmbier appears to have traveled to the DPRK as part of a group of young people, to stay there for a few days only. There are no indications that he was anything but a private citizen.

At his “trial” Warmbier admitted stealing the sign, but given the nature of the regime confessions cannot be taken at face value. The regime in Pyongyang has said Warmbier stole the sign in cooperation with US authorities to harm the regime, but this is obvious nonsense.

Last week Warmbier was returned to the US on “humanitarian grounds”. He was in a state of coma, having suffered severe brain damage from causes unknown, although doctors have said oxygen deprivation associated with cardio-pulmonary failure could explain his condition. He died yesterday.

North Korea has arrested westerners in the past, and handed down severe sentences for what would be considered minor misdemeanors in most countries. Such events have often coincided with a period of more-than-usually frosty relations between DPRK and the West. From what we know prisoners are indeed treated harshly in camp-like prisons, and several who have returned are scarred for life both physically and mentally (the locals suffer even worse at the hands of the regime).

Travel advice

If you travel to North Korea or another of the world’s few remaining pariah states or non-recognized de facto state entities or occupied/annexed areas, you are cautioned that the State is a source of serious risk to your personal safety. As the saying goes, in a police-state the criminals wear uniform. Citizens from countries with adversarial relations to such a state should not travel there at all.

Inform your foreign ministry or other relevant authority of your travel plans. Note that your home country may be powerless to assist you if trouble do occur. Being a foreign citizen does not grant you immunity.

Make sure you toe the line and do not break any laws or rules at all, no matter how minor. Do not speak ill of the country you are visiting and refrain from contact with locals unless expressively permitted. All of your travel papers must be in perfect order, including visas and your passport which should be valid at least 6 months after your journey ends.

Do not bring any equipment or items which could in any way be associated with espionage. This includes cameras, microphones, and other electronic equipment in general, even mobile phones with built-in cameras. Weapons and fatigue-clothing must not be brought. On leaving the country do not take anything at all which you did not bring with you on arrival.

Your travel insurance or health insurance should provide cover for medical evacuation and repatriation also, and evacuation and cover in case of political unrest or outbreak of hostilities. The latter is often exempt from insurance policies, or there may be a certain limited window of cover. Note again that outside assistance may be hard to come by in such places, and that this is true of your insurance also.