Commentary | 28 June 2017

What Otto Warmbier's Death Means for Policymakers

Originally published in the Diplomat.

  • Frances Kitt

Originally published in the Diplomat.

  • Frances Kitt

Last week, the world heard the news that U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier had died in Cincinnati. Warmbier, a young and curious university student, took a trip to North Korea in 2015, where he was arrested and convicted of crimes against the state. Seventeen months later, he was sent home in a coma; a week after that, he died.

There is much speculation surrounding the circumstances of his detainment and death. The dearth of information surrounding his case re-emphasizes the enigmatic and unpredictable nature of Kim Jong-un’s regime. The lack of credible answers from North Korean officials only amplifies the mistrust and skepticism many already feel toward Pyongyang. The matter should provide pause for consideration about the terms of any potential engagement with North Korea, as well as its potential bearing on the meeting of U.S. and South Korean presidents scheduled to take place later this week.

After being detained on charges of stealing a piece of North Korean propaganda from a hotel, Warmbier was convicted of “hostile acts against the state” in a show trial and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. After his sentence, he disappeared from the diplomatic radar. The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which handles consular affairs on behalf of U.S. citizens, was denied access to him. Warmbier’s dire state only became clear to the outside world 17 months later, when North Korean diplomats approached Joseph Yun, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy at the UN. By the time Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea, he was essentially brain-dead. According to the North Koreans, he had been in this state for over a year.

This case is unique for three reasons. Previously, foreigners who have been detained in North Korea were held for particularly risky behavior. One detained U.S. citizen, Jeffrey Fowle, had purposefully left a bible in a fisherman’s club in Chongjin, and two other previous detainees were U.S. journalists who had attempted to cross the China-North Korea border. But Warmbier’s alleged “crime” was stealing a poster, and his roommate during the trip disputes this charge.

Second, Warmbier was subject to complete isolation from the outside world, including denying Swedish diplomatic access to him after the trial (the United States does not have an embassy in Pyongyang). Finally, and most importantly, previous detainees have eventually returned to the United States to live out the rest of their lives. Warmbier left North Korea in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and died shortly thereafter.

Already, his death is having repercussions. The tour company that took Warmbier to the North, Young Pioneer Tours, has declared that in light of his death, it will no longer take U.S. citizens to North Korea. Another tour company is currently “reviewing the issue of U.S. citizens travelling to North Korea.” This could signify an industry-wide shift in the willingness of tour companies to take U.S. citizens to North Korea in the future. This is significant because tours for U.S. travelers have always gone ahead despite the peaks and troughs in U.S.-North Korea relations. Cancelling tours for U.S. citizens for the first time demonstrates just how unusual this case is, and the effect it has had on those who favor engagement.

Could Warmbier’s death also shift Seoul’s calculus toward Pyongyang? The newly elected president of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, campaigned on a platform of engagement and dialogue with the North. But when Moon was recently asked at a public address whether his views on North Korea had changed since the Warmbier incident, and he simply responded: “I believe dialogue is necessary.” He did not elaborate further, his campaign position toward engagement with the North having seemingly been toned-down.

This was also apparent in a recent interview with the Washington Post, in which Moon argued that the re-opening of Kaesong Industrial Complex could be used as an incentive to reward steps toward denuclearization, rather than a policy which could be pursued to achieve denuclearization itself. This was a clear change from his campaign pledge, in which he called for Kaesong’s immediate re-opening, regardless of developments in the nuclear program.

Moon’s choice of words could be read as an attempt to de-emphasize and moderate his pro-engagement leaning in order to create the right optics and sentiment ahead of his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump later this week. It will be an important meeting for Moon, who is keen to advocate a more peaceful inter-Korean relationship, while Trump favors greater pressure and sanctions on the North.

However, Moon has already proved himself to be less of a Sunshine 2.0-er than many analysts anticipated, even before the death of Warmbier. While Moon’s background and election campaign demonstrate his belief in the principle of engagement, he has shown he understands that the political environment needs to be right before engagement can become a realistic and legal policy option. In light of Warmbier’s death, a pro-engagement policy without conditions risks indicating to North Korea that seizing foreign citizens can pay off; it remains important that the North gain no political advantage through such prisoner-taking tactics.

In Moon and Trump’s first meeting, the threat posed by North Korea will be brought to the fore by Warmbier’s death. Given that a U.S. citizen, has died, it might seem obvious that Trump will attempt to push a harsher North Korea policy as a result. But beyond the usual non-choice of military action and ever tighter sanctions, what are the options? He could push for a travel ban on U.S. citizens, and disengage the baseline of human contact between the United States and North Korea. But anything that could be seen as hard line in Pyongyang risks derailing the progress in dialogue seen in recent months at a time when a channel of communication is desperately needed. It may well exacerbate Pyongyang’s siege mentality and diminish the likelihood of North Korea releasing the three remaining U.S. citizens held there, further limiting U.S. policy options and continuing to raise tensions.