Detainee Update: The North Korean Message



As predicted, North Korea responded vigorously to recent human rights sanctions, including with a “message” sent to the US on July 10. The message had two practical implications. First, it “totally cut off” the New York channel, a surprisingly dense network of official and unofficial contacts through the DPRK’s permanent mission at the UN. Second, the KCNA’s description of the diplomatic note contained the following cryptic effort to exercise leverage:

“The DPRK government informed the U.S. government of its principled stand that from now on it would deal with all the issues arising in the DPRK-U.S. relations under wartime law of the DPRK and the issue of detained Americans is no exception…”

The cases in question are two: Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student currently serving a surprisingly-stiff 15-year sentence for trying to steal a propaganda banner; and Korean-American Kim Dong Chul, serving a 10-year sentence for espionage; links to our posts on these and other detainees are provided below.

Given that the North Korean regime is permanently—or more accurately recurrently—on a “wartime” footing it is hard to know what the message means other than the fact that the bribe price for releasing Warmbier and Kim has just risen. We just noticed that these cases appear to have motivated yet a further revision of the State Department's North Korea travel advisory, which now warns of “serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement, which imposes unduly harsh sentences, including for actions that in the United States would not be considered crimes.”

In the past, “humanitarian” concerns—in effect, the leader’s magnanimity—served as the excuse for letting Americans with little diplomatic value exit the country; sometimes this occurred in the context of envoys, sometimes they were simply kicked out. But the timing of Warmbier’s and Kim’s incarceration—overlapping with the fourth nuclear test, tightening sanctions and THAAD deployment—means these two hapless individuals are likely to be victims of geopolitics for longer than anticipated.

Previous Posts on the Detainees

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