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The tragedy of Otto Warmbier

North Korea’s ongoing, violent history of ignoring even the most basic global rules makes Pyongyang almost impossible to trust.

The casket of Otto Warmbier is carried out from his funeral on 22 June in Wyoming, Ohio. (Photo:Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
The casket of Otto Warmbier is carried out from his funeral on 22 June in Wyoming, Ohio. (Photo:Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Published 26 Jun 2017   Follow @Robert_E_Kelly

Earlier this month, an American tourist to North Korea, Otto Warmbier, died of injuries suffered in detention in that country. The cause of his death is not yet clear. But it appears the North Koreans medically mistreated him in such a way that he suffered major brain damage. My guess is that Warmbier died from inept medical treatment by a hack doctor. High quality medical services are a rationed amenity for elites only in North Korea. Warmbier was likely treated by an incompetent who misdiagnosed him - hence the specious claims that he contracted botulism - leading to his coma. Fearful that he would actually die in North Korean custody, Pyongyang then returned him as a ‘humanitarian’ gesture shortly before he did pass away. Given that Warmbier returned in a near vegetative state and died shortly thereafter, it is no exaggeration to say that North Korea effectively murdered this young man.

This high-profile death raises many of the same questions over North Korea and its behaviour that have bedevilled analysts for decades. It is not clear if the Warmbier tragedy actually opens up new or rarely-considered avenues of action against North Korea. Cable news talk-shows are once again flirting with military options, but this remains unlikely for the same reasons it has always been a poor choice. A more likely outcome is an increase in US bilateral sanctions yet again, and an American travel ban to North Korea.

North Korea and global norms

Warmbier’s killing illustrates once again that North Korea routinely operates outside most rules, formal or otherwise, in the modern international system. Warmbier’s case, while tragic, is not that unique in the history of North Korea simply doing whatever it wants, consequences and expectations be damned.

North Korea runs a tourist trade. I was on a trip similar to Warmbier’s in 2012. Most tourists in most places likely assume some basic level of protection in exchange for their willingness to visit and put money into the local economy.  They expect that, if arrested, it would be on a reasonable charge, and they would have access to diplomatic representation, be treated reasonably humanely if imprisoned, and so on. It should surprise no one that none of that applies in North Korea. Warmbier vandalised a poster, for which he was accused of trying to bring down the state and sentenced to 15 years' hard labour. He never had access to the Swedish embassy, which acts as the ‘protective power’ for US interests in North Korea. He then received such appalling ‘medical care’ that he died of it.

North Korea has snatched visitors like this in the past. Usually they are released in reasonable health after some sort of backroom deal (read: shake-down). Warmbier’s case is getting more play than most, because he is an American and actually died from his detention. But North Korea has a long history of such behaviour. In 1976, it hacked to death two soldiers in the demilitarised zone. In 2010, it sank a South Korean corvette without warning, killing 46 sailors. Its actions extend to drug smuggling, overseas assassination, and other gangsterish behaviour. Earlier this year, it murdered a regime opponent with a weapon of mass destruction in an airport.

I have long thought this record is a great burden for doves who support engagement. North Korea’s ongoing, violent history of ignoring even the most basic global rules – such as its de facto hostage-taking of Malaysians in North Korea this spring despite their legal presence in-country – makes Pyongyang almost impossible to trust.

The North Korean tourism trade

While Warmbier’s passing is a tragedy and his punishment grossly disproportionate to his ‘crime,’ it must also be said that tourism agencies which operate into North Korea are quite explicit in warning tourists not to engage in risky behaviour. I went through Koryo Tours, which, to its credit, was very clear about what not to do: don’t leave behind or even bring in religious materials (‘frontier mission’ evangelicals are regular issue), don’t insult or criticise the leadership to one’s minders, don’t drink too much, don’t flirt, don’t vandalise, don’t wander off, and so on. All of this is common sense for visiting a country as repressive as North Korea. A major question in the wake of Warmbier’s death is whether the company he went through – Young Pioneer Tours – gave Warmbier’s group a proper security brief.

If Young Pioneers did not, it carries some of the responsibility. And indeed, so many Americans have had trouble in North Korea since Kim Jong Un took over in December 2011, that Young Pioneers will no longer bring Americans in. The US State Department is also quite explicit in warning Americans not to travel to North Korea. When I travelled there, I had read these warnings and was cognisant of the risk. Indeed, I only told a few family members that I was going, because I anticipated that many professional friends and colleagues would try to dissuade, even though I wanted very much to go for professional reasons. But clearly I was aware that this was not a place to act foolishly, and my sense was that others in my tour section felt the same. In short, Warmbier should have known what he was getting into. In my experience, there was a lot of warning that I would be on my own if anything happened.

The question now is whether North Korea is too dangerous for US tourists, as Young Pioneers has suggested. The US State Department has not banned US citizens from travelling to North Korea. But given Warmbier’s death, and given that he was simply a young tourist who drank too much – rather than an oppositional journalist or a missionary – a US ban might be necessary now. For myself, I would no longer encourage an American to go. When I went, it was reasonably safe. Now it strikes me as just too dangerous.

There are still no good options to respond

Given Warmbier’s obvious innocence – his youth, his deeply disturbing post-arrest press conference, his apolitical nature – his death has had a greater impact than most North Korean hostage and abductee stories. The news coverage for this kidnapping is greater than any I can remember since the imprisonment of Euna Lee and Laura Ling in 2009. But other than a travel ban, the Trump administration’s choices are still frustrating and frustratingly familiar. If there were any good options to bring North Korea to heel, they long ago would have been tried. We have had this conversation so many times before. Military action over the death of one individual would be seen as grossly disproportional, while tightening sanctions, whose impact on the elites responsible for Warmbier’s death would be minimal, feels like (and is) more of the same. We remain locked into the same set of terrible choices with no obvious way to make North Korea pay for Warmbier’s death, much less slow the advance of its nuclear missile capability.

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