Photo credit: John Pavelka via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Remembering Otto Warmbier, an American Victim of Communism


Yesterday’s passing of Otto Warmbier marked a tragic and unjustifiable end to a promising young American’s life.

While never having met Warmbier, his passing has a way of feeling close to home — not the least because he was, like me, a Virginia transplant with an interest in economics. I can even relate to the intellectual curiosity and sense of adventure that likely led him to visit North Korea in the first place.

But unlike Warmbier, I certainly couldn’t hold a candle to his many life achievements, including being named his high school’s soccer team captain, homecoming king, and class salutatorian, and his exchange at the prestigious London School of Economics.

The loss of this plainly brilliant young man’s life is deeply disheartening, but the discussion surrounding his death has only made it more so.

Over the past week, pundits and Internet trolls alike have offered an unusual response to the torturous treatment received by Warmbier, by asking questions like “Why did he go to North Korea in the first place?” and “What was he (or his parents) thinking?”

This sentiment was previously echoed in the immediate aftermath of Warmbier’s detention, when Comedy Central host Larry Wilmore said, “North Korea isn’t a playground… It’s just tough for me to have much sympathy for this guy and his crocodile tears.”

Need more proof capitalism works? The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore was cancelled after its second season.

Reactions such as Wilmore’s are callous and offensive. By this same logic, should we blame the victim when a war reporter is murdered in a conflict zone, or anytime an American is killed while vacationing in a less fortunate country? What about Americans who travel to Europe during a period of heightened terror alerts?

About 4,000 to 6,000 western tourists visit North Korea each year. Barack Obama’s state department allowed Warmbier and other Americans to travel to North Korea (but failed to secure his release).

Neither Warmbier’s decision to visit this country on a sanctioned tour, nor his alleged crime of removing (not stealing, as is widely reported) a hallway banner, made him deserving of a death sentence.

Stop blaming the victim and his family. North Korea’s brutal communist regime is responsible for this tragic loss of life.

In the 20th century (between 1900 and 2000), communism was the leading cause of ideological death worldwide. Over 94 million perished (approaching 1 million deaths per year) in communist countries including China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, Afghanistan, and Eastern Europe.

Here in the 21st century, North Korea remains a testament to the immense failure of Karl Marx’s ideology to create its desired utopia.

As the Heritage Foundation has noted, in North Korea “[t]he government commands almost every part of the economy. The government sets production levels for most products, and state-owned industries account for nearly all GDP. The state directs all significant economic activity.” Additionally, “[a]lmost all property belongs to the state. Government control extends even to chattel property (domestically produced goods and all imports and exports).”

As is apparent, the government seizing the means of production in North Korea has led to crippling poverty, widespread starvation, and the lack of the most basic human rights including freedom of religion, speech, movement, and property ownership.

Decades following the decline of the Soviet Union, in a world where the largest communist nation (China) has increasingly opened its markets, Warmbier’s untimely passing reminds us all of how poisonous the communist ideology is.

To Fred and Cindy Warmbier — I am motivated by your strength, and I am devastated by your loss.

And to North Korea — Your disregard for human life has drawn global attention to the brutality of your regime, and that of the communist system. The whole world is watching.

Photo credit: John Pavelka via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Jonathan Decker

Jonathan Decker is the Chief Economic Correspondent for

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