Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

Winston Aldworth: Pyongyang express

American student Otto Warmbier. Photo / AP
American student Otto Warmbier. Photo / AP

It's been 37 years since the movie Midnight Express painted a grim picture for travellers pondering the thrill of breaking local laws. Turns out that when we visit a foreign land, it's their laws that hang over us; their ideas of what constitutes a crime and their ideas of what might be a reasonable punishment.

If only someone had pointed this out to Otto Warmbier. The 21-year-old American student was last week sentenced to 15 years hard labour for what seems - from where we sit in our comfortable western, liberal democracy - a pretty minor offence.

Trouble is, he was in North Korea at the time.

Warmbier was found guilty of committing "hostile acts" against the state after being caught trying to steal a propaganda banner that hung on the wall of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, in Pyongyang, where he was staying.

It would be a kind of dumb thing to do anywhere (would you steal a US flag from a hotel wall in Washington DC?), but mega-dumb in Pyongyang.


Warmbier is unlikely to experience the full horror of North Korea's gulag system - hellish forced-labour camps in which, according to a 2014 UN special commission report, thousands of people are worked to death each year. The regime won't want to draw attention to those.

His stay as a guest of the North Korean penal system won't be pleasant, but he's likely to return home sometime in the next couple of years.

Chastened by the heavy consequences of his youthful indiscretion, he'll have learnt a lesson. It's one all young travellers should consider.

- NZ Herald

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Winston Aldworth is the Herald's Travel Editor.

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