Privilege, Punishment and Cultural Relativism: The Case of Otto Warmbier

"Pyongyang North Korea Monument to the Founding of the Workers Party" by Joseph Ferris III is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Even after his passing, Otto Warmbier continues to make headlines. Over 17 months ago, Warmbier, an American college student, was detained while attempting to leave North Korea after a trip with Young Pioneer Tours. According to The Daily Beast, Warmbier was accused and found guilty of stealing a propaganda sign from his hotel, and was sentenced to remain in the country for 15 years of hard labor. A few weeks ago, Warmbier was returned home under mysterious circumstances and in a comatose state, before eventually dying.

In anthropological terms, cultural relativism refers to the practice of viewing the traditions and beliefs of a culture from an insider, or emic, perspective. The opposite of cultural relativism is ethnocentrism, where another culture is judged in reference to one’s own culture. In Warmbier’s case, by not following the laws of North Korea, many would say he acted in an ethnocentric fashion, rather than practicing cultural relativism. While it seems the majority of Americans have criticized Warmbier to some degree for seemingly not following the law of the land while in North Korea, some have gone so far as to say that he deserved the extreme punishment and resulting death that he received.

Most notably, Kathy Dettwyler, an anthropology professor at the University of Delaware, said Warmbier “got exactly what he deserved…He went to North Korea, for fuck’s sake, and then acted like a spoiled, naive, arrogant, US college student who had never had to face the consequences of his actions,” in reference to his punishment and eventual death. According to the Washington Post, the University of Delaware has stated that they do not support Dettwyler’s views and she will no longer be employed at the university. Dettwyler and others also believe that Warmbier typifies white male privilege. One  blogger said Warmbier was blind to the risk he was taking by visiting North Korea as “The high of privilege told him that North Korea’s history of making examples out of American citizens who dare challenge their rigid legal system in any way was no match for his alabaster American privilege.”

However, even after being found guilty of stealing, speculation remains surrounding the circumstances of the supposed crime. Warmbier’s roommate during his North Korean adventure, Danny Gratton, is adamant that he did not steal a sign from their hotel, and believes Warmbier was only accused as a political pawn. Gratton said of Warmbier, “I’ve got nothing from my experiences with him that would suggest he would do something like that.” The question remains, even if Warmbier did indeed act from a privileged and ethnocentric place, did he really deserve the resulting harsh punishment and death?

If Warmbier really did steal a sign during his time in North Korea, then it is clear he made a deadly mistake. And while critics may say he should have known better than to mess with the strict government, the punishment still does not seem to fit the crime. Whether Warmbier’s decision to travel to and potentially cause trouble in North Korea was right or wrong, there is no question that the nation continues to grieve for the loss of a fellow American.

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Carrie Robinson is a junior anthropology major and economics minor from Dublin, Ohio.