Arthur I. Cyr: North Korea killing of Otto Warmbier — and how to respond
The tragic death of Otto Warmbier, the young American imprisoned and tormented by the nightmare North Korea regime, is a poignant as well as horrific event. The death of a young person is particularly tragic, under any circumstances. The undeniable evidence of brutal treatment of this young man, who was in a coma when released by the government in Pyongyang, is profoundly disturbing.
Warmbier was accused by the regime of stealing a communist propaganda poster from a restricted staff area in a hotel. For this, he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment at hard labor. Given youthful impulsiveness, he may have been guilty of petty theft. Even if the alleged act took place, the sadistic extreme punishment hardly fits the crime and is indefensible.
The Donald Trump administration was able to secure his release, though in retrospect he was already clearly near death. His parents at least had the consolation of having the presence of their beloved son at home, if only briefly. The death of a child is uniquely painful, and particularly so in this circumstance.
The administration should be commended for successfully working to secure the young man’s release. Early in June, Special Representative Joseph Yun of our State Department met in New York with Pak Kil-yon of the North Korea mission to the United Nations. At that time, he learned of the deteriorating health of the young man.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson immediately gave the matter top priority, met with President Donald Trump, then dispatched Yun and a medical team to North Korea to secure Otto’s release and return home. This was accomplished with impressive dispatch, indicating the mission was most likely accompanied by considerable private pressure.
Pyongyang has a grim history of seizing Americans, some released only after celebrity intervention freed them from years of hard labor. Examples include in 2014 Kenneth Bae following intervention by basketball pro Dennis Rodman, and Matthew Miller after National Intelligence Director James Clapper flew to Pyongyang.
In January 2010, missionary Aijalon Mahli Gomes crossed the border and was arrested. Former President Jimmy Carter secured his release.
American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee did the same in March 2009. Former President Bill Clinton negotiated their release.
Pyongyang may have calculated Warmbier could be exploited for global media and high-level political attention. If this is the case, a cynical PR ploy backfired, terribly. Three other Americans remain in North Korea custody.
Desperate, near-starvation level economic conditions in North Korea are the prime reality for the mass of people, severe enough to have some impact on the ruling elite. The other undeniable fact of life is fear and paranoia, inevitable consequences of extreme totalitarian dictatorships.
In response, the United States and South Korea should continue to work together, coordinating economic pressure, military posture and diplomatic initiatives, which should continue.
The Republic of Korea was once part of the diverse Third World population of poor nations. Today South Korea is one of the largest and most successful economies in the world and has effective though turbulent democracy. The U.S. and South Korea militaries have an extremely close partnership.
South Korea and the U.S. underwrite individual freedom. Our actions regarding Warmbier underscore this.
Both nations should provide regular reminders to the public of the danger inevitably involved with travel to North Korea. Just reducing the number of naive foreigners seized, and then abused, by Pyongyang would be progress.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at email@example.com.