The one lesson we all can learn from the 21yo who got sentenced to 15yrs in North Korea

So if you have even been reading/watching the news recently, you’ll hear about a 21 year old American college student who recently got sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea after being caught for attempting to steal a Propaganda banner from his Hotel.


21 year old, Otto Warmbier, is an American economics student at the University of Virginia. He recently joined the New Year tour into North Korea (a country that is open to visitors but has been known to be extremely strict with the can and cannots within the country). Warmbier has been said to try and steal a propaganda banner for an acquaintance who wanted to hang it at her church. In exchange, he would be offered a used car worth USD10,000 if he succeeded. Warmbier who comes from a family with financial difficulties decided to take the offer and attempted to steal the said banner. He was however caught and detained as he was about to board his flight.

This brings rise to the already tensioned relationship between the USA and North Korea. In a bid to “protest” against North Korea’s nuclear testing, USA and South Korea has seeked to impose sanctions on the North. In response, the North ordered an immediate evacuation of Kaesong Industrial Park – a joint factory between the North and South, and declared that they would liquidate all assets within the factory. A joint exercise which most deem to be a show of power, between the South and USA subsequently took place. With the recent capture of Warmbier, many speculate if North Korea would use that as a leverage/bargaining chip as they have done many times in the past.

And the weird part is that it has in fact happened before. Not the exact act of being sentenced for stealing a banner, but in other forms such as the Russian tourist which was fined $16,000 for engraving on the Colosseum, the tourist who got deported and fine after posing naked for shots in Kota Kinabula (which the locals blame to have caused the Sabah quake), the Bali Nine and countless others.

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While the sentence was arguably harsh, the fact of the matter is that when you are in the country of another, you play by their rules, regardless of how unreasonable or unjust it might sound. Your choice of following the rules end the moment you decide to board the plane.

Throughout our travels, our Travel Blog has come across and heard foreigners and tourist who refuse to abide to local customs and cultural i.e not wanting to cover up when visiting a mosque, taking pictures at places where no picture taking is allowed etc and that’s really just not how life is. Regardless of where you come from, what your culture is back home, remember that when you are in someone else’s home, you play by their rules.

Laws are meant to be impartial, no matter if you are a local or foreigner, and this is especially so in North Korea, the only country that is still technically at war. Our Singapore Travel Blog had the opportunity to travel to the DMZ border between the North and South Korea when we visited Seoul (a tour we highly recommend everyone to do, read Top 9 things to do in Seoul). As our tour guide explained to us about the other tour that we were supposed to be on, the JSA tour, where you get to actually see the north korean soldiers face to face), he mentioned to us that if you had cross the specific demarcated line, the North Korean Soldiers would fire real shots at you without any warning. You could see from his facial expression that he wasn’t joking. But that is just testimony to how the North Koreans are. So to try to do something silly like that in a country like North Korea, was really rather immature.

So the next time you visit a country, remember that cultural, laws and customs, no matter how silly it may be compared to the way you live back at home, is meant to be followed and respected. Be respectful of others and most others, would do the same for you.

On a separate note, here’s some 11 things you probably didn’t know about North Korea

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