Does North Korea Want to Use U.S. Student as a Bargaining Chip?

Four days before Pyongyang tested a supposed H-bomb, authorities arrested a 21-year-old American on vacation.

North Korea announced Friday that it had detained an American college student for an alleged and unspecified “hostile act” against the state, but officials in Pyongyang and in Washington had little to say about his case or when he might be released.

Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old junior at the University of Virginia, was traveling with a tour group when he was arrested on Jan. 2, the North Korean Central News Agency said. Warmbier was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang as he prepared to leave the country following a five-day trip, according to Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based company that organized the expedition.

Warmbier was detained four days before North Korea conducted what it claimed was a successful test of a hydrogen bomb.

In the past, North Korea has exploited American prisoners to try to wring concessions from the United States or to compel senior officials to visit the country and meet with its leaders. That raises the question of whether Pyongyang might use Warmbier as a bargaining chip, perhaps to avoid punitive sanctions that the Obama administration has promised to impose.

Earlier this week, Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken pressured China to play a stronger role punishing North Korea for the nuclear test.

North Korea has made no demands in Warmbier’s case and has said he remains under investigation.

In 2014, North Korea freed two Americans following a visit to Pyongyang by Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Some experts questioned whether the Obama administration gave something to North Korea in return.

Warmbier was drawn to the Hermit Kingdom out of a sense of adventure, a friend told The Daily Beast.

“He was only going because of the prospect of visiting such an off-limits place,” said Carl Anderson, who added that he thought Warmbier was traveling with his father. There were no reports from North Korean officials of the father or any other Americans having been detained.

“Otto is brilliant, and if there was anyone who could talk their way out of something as absurd as being detained by North Korea, it’s Otto,” Anderson said.

Attempts to reach Warmbiers’ parents and relatives were unsuccessful.

U.S. officials had little to add to North Korean’s statement, which accused the undergraduate business student of “bringing down the foundation of [North Korea’s] single-minded unity” with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.”

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

A Facebook page belonging to Warmbier apparently was taken down Friday afternoon. It showed the young student hanging out with friends and several photos of Warmbier traveling, which he described as one of his favorite activities.

“We are aware of media reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in North Korea,” State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said in a statement. “The welfare of U.S. citizens is one of the Department’s highest priorities. In cases where U.S. citizens are reported detained in North Korea, we work closely with the Swedish Embassy, which serves as the United States’ Protecting Power in North Korea. We have no further information to share due to privacy considerations.”