As the Winter Olympics kick off in Pyeongchang, US Vice-President Mike Pence has arrived in South Korea with a guest – the father of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died shortly after being sent home from a North Korea prison in June last year.
But, as the BBC reports, Mr. Pence did not attend the state dinner hosted by the South Korean President, Moon Jae-in, where he would have had to share a table with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam.
Mr. Kim heads the North Korea delegation to the Olympics, alongside Kim Yo-jong, sister to its leader, Kim Jong-un, and member of its ruling body, the Politburo.
Otto Warmbier was detained in January 2016, and later sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour, for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from his Pyongyang hotel.
He was then hurriedly evacuated in June 2017, in an apparently medically induced coma. It was believed he had contracted botulism (caused by a toxin) shortly after his trial. For this he had taken (or was given) a sleeping pill and was in a coma for a year before reuniting with his family, dying shortly thereafter.
His father, Fred Warmbier, said at that time: “The awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”
While North Korea is making headlines for its nuclear gambit, as well as its joint participation with South Korea at the Olympics, the Christian charity Open Doors has released a statement, in which Advocacy Policy Officer Dr. Matthew Rees calls on the international community not to forget “that every day over 300,000 Christians [in North Korea] are denied the right to take part in the religious observance of their choice”.
“Every aspect of life in North Korea is controlled by the state,” says Dr. Rees. “The belief that God is a higher authority than the nation’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is seen as a threat that must be crushed. Tens of thousands of Christians are incarcerated in horrific labour camps, and thousands more keep their faith in Christ a complete secret.”
With its appearance at the Olympics under a pro-unification flag, North Korea is believed to be seeking to present a friendly and open attitude to the world.