Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday morning roundup

A while back, I did a post about Young Pioneers, the tour company with which Otto Warmbier visited North Korea, and how the guides and organizers in its employ pretty clearly put partying above keeping track of its clients. Isaac Stone Fish at Politico has a fascinating account of the details of the particular trip Warmbier was on, as well as what does and doesn't get a Westerner in trouble in the Hermit Kingdom.

Here's one incident:

Warmbier had taken the tour “for the same reason everybody else was there,” an American who was on the tour, and who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “He wanted to have an interesting adventure.” Ria Westergaard Pedersen, a Dutch journalist who was on that tour, recalls standing with Warmbier in front of the Mansu Hill Grand Monument, where gargantuan statues of founding leader Kim Il Sung and his son, the country’s second leader Kim Jong Il, loom over the city. Like other Western tourists to North Korea, the guides had warned them not to take photos of the military. “We really wanted just a few photos of all those uniforms,” Pedersen told a Dutch TV station. The participant and Warmbier would take turns standing next to the officials, pretending to photograph each other when in reality they were surreptitiously photographing soldiers. “We were like, ‘Oh, we’re doing a bad thing,’” Pedersen said. “He was so nervous about it! This feels so tiny compared to what were accused of, and he was nervous about it!” Interviews with six of the people who joined Warmbier on the tour paint a fuller picture of the atmosphere in the days leading up to his detention – and help answer the question of what, if any, responsibility the Western tour guides shoulder for Warmbier’s death. “I don’t know if Otto did what he was supposed to have done, or if his detention was a result of poor tour guide guidance,” the second participant told me. “But all of the tour guides were young people who get very drunk. It was sort of like there were few or no adults around.”

Consider these two incidents, the first of which has not been previously reported. The tourists celebrated New Year’s Eve by carousing in Kim Il Sung Square, a major public space in Pyongyang. The participants described it as a very pleasant evening, and a rare occasion to interact with North Koreans. “It was quite playful,” said a third participant said, who also asked to speak anonymously. The evening was “really special,” Ben Johnson, an Australian who was on the tour, told me.

But then something “fucking crazy” happened, the American told me. Danny Gratton, a Brit in his mid-forties, “takes a balloon on a string from some kid, waves the balloon up and down, and, like the Pied Piper, a bunch of North Koreans start following him,” says the American, who says he was the only foreigner who joined along. The two men, engaging with the North Koreans, happy and laughing, strolled around the area for roughly half an hour. The American than decided to turn back and rejoin the group. But

Gratton kept walking, and found himself on a dark street, alone.
In any other part of the world, this would not be noteworthy. But North Korea is the world’s most closed country, and guides tightly monitor Western tourists. This kind of vanishing act is extremely rare. Over the last decade, I’ve spoken with dozens of Western tourists who have visited North Korea, and I have never heard of anything like this happening. 

“The North Korean guides were panicked. They were so scared, asking us, ‘Have you seen him, have you seen him?’ and we, including the Western guides, were too drunk to realize the seriousness of the situation,” the first participant told me. “Danny got separated from the group,” Ben Johnson, who now works with Young Pioneer as a guide, confirmed. “There was really thick fog that night.”
The American remembers the North Korean guides concerned and angry. They asked him, “Where’s Danny? Is he drunk? What do you mean he’s gone?” The tourists waited in the square for hours, until their guides eventually returned them to the hotel. Gratton took several taxis and made it back sometime early in the morning, according to the American, who says he saw him walk back into the hotel. 

And here's the tale of how Young Pioneers lost track of Warmbier, leaving him behind as there rest of the group went back to China, some by train and some by plane:

While her colleague was taking some of the tourists out of the country on the train, the guide Charlotte Guttridge, who was responsible for Warmbier, took a plane back to Beijing. “When it became clear that [Warmbier] wasn’t coming, I had to board the flight before it departed,” Guttridge told Reuters in January 2016. “I was the last to board the flight.”
And yet, two of the tour participants dispute this. It was “this kind of Home Alone moment, when people realized Otto wasn’t on the plane,” the second participant said. “The plane is pulling off, and everyone is saying, ‘Holy shit, where is Otto?’ the second participant added. “If you had to point your finger at something [the tour company did wrong] besides the drinking – if I were running a tour I would be the last one on the plane, to make sure everyone gets on the flight!” The first participant said. “She [Guttridge] was on the plane, before everyone was on the plane, and she didn’t notice before someone said, ‘Hey, where’s Otto?’” According to what Gratton told The Washington Post, in the airport two North Korean security officials took Warmbier to a private room. Gratton claims he was the only person to see Warmbier detained. Gratton then boarded the flight to Beijing. 

California Freedom-Haters talked a good utopian game about instituting universal health care in that state, but, after coming out of committee, the bill for getting it done is getting shelved for the time being:

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon put the brakes on a sweeping plan to overhaul the health care market in California Friday, calling the bill “woefully incomplete.”
Rendon announced plans to park the bill to create a government-run universal health care system in Assembly Rules Committee “until further notice” and give senators time to fill in holes that the bill does not currently address.
“Even senators who voted for Senate Bill 562 noted there are potentially fatal flaws in the bill, including the fact it does not address many serious issues, such as financing, delivery of care, cost controls, or the realities of needed action by the Trump administration and voters to make SB 562 a genuine piece of legislation,” Rendon said.
"Financing, delivery of care and cost controls" . . . um, just what aspects of this grand undertaking were ready for rollout?

The great Charles Koch is currently meeting with donors and associates in Colorado Springs and they have weighed in on the Senate health-care bill:

The Koch network is working with conservative allies behind the scenes to make changes to the Senate health-care bill that was unveiled this week, declining to endorse the measure as it stands.
As hundreds of donors gathered Saturday for a three-day seminar organized by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, leaders from the constellation of groups that support his agenda outlined concerns about the draft bill.
“In all candor, we’ve been disappointed that movement is not more dramatic toward a full repeal or rollback (of the Affordable Care Act). But we’re not walking away,” said Tim Phillips, the president of Americans for Prosperity. “We still think this can get done, but the Senate bill needs to get better.”
AFP has spent years mobilizing against Obamacare and battling against Medicaid expansion at the state level. The group came out against the first version of the House health-care bill this winter and helped push for some of the amendments that were added before it ultimately passed last month.
Phillips said the subject came up on Friday night during a 45-minute meeting here between Koch and Vice President Pence. Phillips said no specific “ask” was made of the vice president during the sit-down, which also covered tax reform. “We’ve had productive discussions with them to try getting to the right place,” Phillips said.
Several key players in the ongoing Senate negotiations are at The Broadmoor resort for the network’s twice-annual gathering, including two of the five GOP holdouts: Ted Cruz (Tex.) and Mike Lee (Utah). The No. 2 in GOP leadership, John Cornyn (Tex.), is also here, along with Cory Gardner (Colo.), Jeff Flake (Ariz.) and Ben Sasse (Neb.).
Some conservatives who could determine whether anything that passes the Senate would subsequently clear the House are coming to the Koch conference, including Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (N.C.), Jim Jordan (Ohio), Dave Brat (Va.) and Justin Amash (Mich.). 
Personal side note: My sole one-on-one conversation with Tim Phillips occurred when we were occupying side-by-side urinals in the convention center men's room in Columbus, Ohio at an AFP Defending the American Dream Summit a few years ago.

Rank-and-file Freedom-Haters are pushing party leaders to taper off on the Russia-Trump narrative.

Speaking of Squirrel-Hair, there's a good piece at Red State today making clear that #NeverTrump-ism is an entirely different critter from Trump Derangement Syndrome.

Read more here:

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