war on the rocks

Entry 58: Feeling All the Feels

March 5, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the 58th installment in Van Jackson’s daily writing journal, “Nuke Your Darlings,” which tracks his six-month battle to write a new book on North Korea. Will he meet his deadline?

Over the weekend I was stacking ammo for the chapters on the Trump presidency. I was a bit lazy and distracted, and ended up writing about 1,000 words.  Not bad, but I wanted to do more.

As I stacked ammo, I started reading about an American that North Korea killed last year.  Otto Warmbier was a U.S. college student who went on a recreational trip to North Korea as part of a multi-part trip through Asia in 2015.  Before leaving Pyongyang, he was caught trying to steal a propaganda poster and charged with 15 years of hard labor.

There’s a lot to say about this incident that I’ll save for the book, but it ended up being consequential for the nuclear crisis last year.  Warmbier was tortured in a bad way while being detained, and when he was finally released to U.S. custody last June, he was in a coma and unresponsive to most external stimuli.  He died within days of being returned to his native Cincinnati.  Later reports would say he suffered severe neurological damage at the hands of the North Koreans.  Given how Kim Jong Un offed his old brother only a few months prior, they might’ve even been doing experimentation on him with biological or chemical agents.  What we know is that the North Koreans killed Warmbier, and they did so in an outrageous, inhumane way that involved torture.

When all this went down in real time I wasn’t paying much attention because the crisis hadn’t quite ignited yet and I was just getting settled in after a life-changing transition to Wellington.  But reading about the details of the incident in a semi-graphic way for the first time really got to me this past weekend.  To say I was pissed doesn’t begin to describe it.  Not for the first time, I felt the kind of righteous anger that made me want to put warheads on foreheads in Pyongyang.  The lust for violence as an emotion.

Working on North Korea, I try really hard to compartmentalize my feelings, but it’s difficult.  The Kim regime is the most depraved, violent, evil force I’ve ever known in real life.  It says something awful about the human condition that a regime this despicable is permitted to exist.  And when you talk to a defector who suffered in one of the regime’s prison camps, or when you see video footage or read accounts of some of the utterly malevolent acts of murder and torture the regime resorts to for the sake of maintaining order, something inside you reacts.

Despite seeing and reading about so much of it over the years, I’m not numb, and my visceral gut reaction to reading about Warmbier’s death confirms as much.  But a major reason why is that I’ve had to compartmentalize.  Anyone who works Korea issues from a place of emotion—or who allows emotion to enter their work too often—will go insane, turn malevolent themselves, or become utterly cynical.  I don’t want to be any of those things, so I try hard to think about North Korea analytically as much as possible.

I fully understand—truly—when people talk about attacking North Korea from a place of anger and frustration.  There’s a part of me that feels it too.  But war decisions can’t be made on that basis.  Our only chance as a species will be if reason can prevail over emotion.  Reading about the unjust torture of Otto Warmbier doesn’t make it easy though.


Van Jackson is a senior editor at War on the Rocks and an associate editor of the Texas National Security Review. He is also a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, and the Defence & Strategy Fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.