North Korea announced earlier this month that it had released Otto Warmbier, the twenty-two-year-old American student it has held since January 2016, for “humanitarian” reasons. The reclusive state allowed the U.S. government to evacuate him from the country. Warmbier remained in a coma as his plane touched down in Cincinnati Tuesday night.
American officials secured Warmbier’s release by demanding, not asking, for his return, and they violated the sovereignty of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in their successful effort to get him back before he served out his full sentence for engaging in “hostile acts.”
Good. It’s about time the United States delegitimized the regime of Kim Jong-un and started issuing demands of its own. Moreover, the Trump administration should begin imposing costs on Pyongyang for its horrific treatment of Warmbier.
North Korean authorities detained the University of Virginia student on January 2, 2016, for trying to take a propaganda poster. After a trial two months later, he was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor.
In recent discussions between Swedish diplomats, who represent the United States in Pyongyang, and their North Korean counterparts, the North Koreans expressed their desire to speak to U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun. In subsequent conversations with Yun, which took place about a week ago, the North Koreans said Warmbier had contracted a case of botulism and fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.
Soon after that conversation, the State Department rushed rescue efforts. “A medical team and aircraft were organized, and North Korea was informed that a delegation would travel there,” the Washington Post reported. One U.S. official told the paper that “it wasn’t a situation where they asked.” On the contrary, the North Koreans “were informed that the airplane would land, American and medical officials would get out.”
Yun, after landing in North Korea, secured Warmbier’s release.
The North’s account does not make sense. The student, according to Pyongyang, has been in a coma since the second half of March 2016. Nonetheless, North Korean officials did not tell Bill Richardson of Warmbier’s condition, even though the veteran diplomat was acting on behalf of his parents. “I believe there’s a coverup going on regarding Otto’s condition,” Richardson said. “The excuse of botulism and a sleeping pill to cause the coma I believe is not only implausible but highly questionable.” Warmbier is now undergoing tests at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
As Richardson told BBC News, “In no uncertain terms, North Korea must explain the causes of his coma.” And if the explanation is not plausible, then Washington needs to begin imposing costs on the North Koreans. What costs? Many say the United States is already “sanctioned out” when it comes to Pyongyang and that such measures haven’t worked anyway. Sanctions haven’t worked, but that is only half the story. The other half of the story is that the nonworking sanctions are not severe. As American officials say, our measures are intended to bring North Korea to its senses, not to its knees.
The Warmbier story demonstrates—once again—that the inherent nature of the Kim regime is horrific, evil even. It cannot, unfortunately, be brought to its senses, so it is time to think about forcing the North to its knees.
As we learned during the Cold War, the nature of regimes matters. The most brutal of them—North Korea—cannot be tolerated, and coexistence, a concept sounding good to the ear, means the tolerance of the intolerable.
Warmbier should never have gone to North Korea in the first place, and it was imprudent for him to try to tear down the sign. Yet the reaction of the Kim regime to the prank tells us that we should no longer try to live with the regime. The North Koreans routinely revel in killing Americans by the millions. Maybe the plight of one college student will help us understand the bigger issues. “We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime,” Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, said in a statement.
That regime, we learned again this week, will continue to brutalize others until it is no more.
Image: Three North Korean soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Henrik Ishihara