The 22-year-old American student, who arrived in Cincinnati on a medevac flight June 13 after being held captive in North Korea since January 2016, died Monday afternoon. He had been in a coma for 15 months.
The North Koreans claimed they released Warmbier on “humanitarian grounds.” That, like most everything they have said on the matter, was deceptive. They let him go, in all probability, because they did not want him to die on North Korean soil.
It’s unlikely their last-minute maneuver will make much difference, however. The student’s death, so soon after his release, is bound to affect American policy toward the Kim regime, just as the beheading of James Foley by ISIS in August 2014 affected the Obama administration’s Middle East policy.
At the moment, President Trump’s attempts to disarm North Korea seem to be in abeyance, as the White House waits for Beijing to help. Whatever one thinks of that approach, Warmbier’s death will add pressure on the president to act now.
Trump immediately issued a statement expressing condolences to the Warmbier family and condemning North Korea’s brutality.
Those sentiments, however, are not enough. Unless the American people are willing to accept tragedies like this on a regular basis, costs need to be imposed on the Kim regime.
American diplomats had been trying for months to obtain Warmbier’s release and that of three other American citizens held by Pyongyang.
The student had been prevented from leaving the North in early January 2016 after attempting to take down a propaganda poster. For the prank, he was charged with “hostile acts” and given a sentence of 15 years hard labor. His show trial took place the following March.
Pyongyang says he fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill soon after. The North’s officials also said Warmbier had contracted botulism.
Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center found no traces of botulism but did find dead brain tissue. They described his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.”
In all probability, the coma was the result of severe trauma that prevented blood flow to the brain.
In any event, North Korean officials had tried to hide Warmbier’s condition until June 6, when Pyongyang’s U.N. ambassador disclosed the coma to Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special envoy for North Korea. Yun then secured Warmbier’s release after traveling to the North.
The consequences for the Kim regime now have to be far in excess of turning the State Department’s travel advisory into a travel ban, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested Wednesday in testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The costs have to be so severe that no regime, North Korean or otherwise, will think of harming Americans.
Washington, of course, tries to obtain the release of detained Americans, and to do so it always seeks to avoid offending regimes like North Korea’s. That usually works to free a particular individual, but the process creates incentives for future seizures of Americans. Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il, his predecessor and father, apparently thought taking Americans resulted in an endless stream of bargaining chips.
At some point—like now—Washington must switch its approach from rescuing individual Americans to preventing seizures in the first place.
What can be done? North Korea should once more take its place on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. No bank, including Chinese ones, involved in North Korea’s various criminal activities should be allowed access to its dollar accounts in New York. The U.S. should seize all dollar accounts of enterprises proliferating ballistic missile or nuclear weapons tech, equipment, or components to the North. The U.S., using authority flowing from Pyongyang’s various renunciations of the Korean War armistice, should interdict and then inspect all North Korean shipping for weapons or contraband.
Kim Jong Un continues in power because regime elements believe they are safer with him than on their own. The United States, which says it is not seeking regime change, needs to convince them they have no future if they support any regime killing Americans.
Washington, for decades, has always worried about the consequences of action on North Korea and therefore has done little. While it has done little, the Kim family has, among other things, counterfeit American currency, built nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and cyberattacked American businesses and institutions. And now it has felt secure enough to kill an American.
North Koreans thought it was safe to brutalize Otto Warmbier. Now is the time to make sure they never harm another American again.