More on Warmbier



The Warmbier case has resonated far more than anticipated, sparking the appropriate mix of outrage, more subdued reflection, and thoughts about what to do. Today, I simply collate some developments following his tragic death and the reaction.

First, Fred Warmbier’s extraordinarily poised news conference—wearing the jacket Warmbier Jr. wore when he was sentenced—is worth watching. One takeaway: a thinly-restrained bitterness toward the Obama administration’s failure to get Otto released. “Earlier this year, we decided that the time for strategic patience was over,” Warmbier Sr. says. The family did some media and met with Joseph Yun to try to force the issue. With all due respect to the Warmbiers, however, it is almost certain that Otto was released because the North Koreans decided he was a liability, not because of any diplomatic acumen on the part of the US.

But the depth of North Korean cynicism is now only fully being revealed. Part of Warmbier’s anger stems from the low-key approach that Obama administration officials were urging, arguing that the family should not upset the North Koreans. The most amazing part of the story to surface over the last week is that Warmbier was Jewish. He still may have stolen the propaganda banner. Who knows? But this revelation puts to rest the North Korean concoction—if any doubt remained—that he had taken it on orders from the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio “as a trophy” in return for a $10,000 used car. And the North Koreans continue to double down, claiming at a Track II meeting in Mongolia in a heated exchange with Alex Mansourov that "Otto Warmbier, Kenneth Bae -- they committed crimes against the government of DPRK to realize the regime change and the regime collapse of the DPRK."

Warmbier’s death opens onto the wider issue of human rights and the penal system, not topics that North Korean participants in Track II talks are anxious to take up. Michael Kirby reflects on the case in an op-ed for the Sydney Morning Herald and a longer talk at the Sydney Institute.  Kirby links Warmbier to all of the others who have been unjustly incarcerated:

“His plight should draw our attention to the sufferings of an entire people subjected in North Korea to daily acts of fearsome disproportion and violence. Accidently perhaps, Otto’s incarceration, coma, removal and death, once again, call to notice the sufferings of the other prisoners, languishing in the jails of North Korea. A young American’s fate becomes a metaphor, a kind of symbol, of a big story about thousands of nameless statistics locked up and oppressed in North Korea. They are voiceless. But Otto Warmbier speaks of their suffering from his grave. He reminds the world of the human rights wrongs in North Korea. He joins the voices of the many witnesses who gave testimony to the UN commission.”


On what to do, the most natural response is to ban travel. And if there is one thing from this post that is a must-read, it is Alex Hoban's takedown of the culture of Young Pioneer Tours at the Guardian. It is sickening. I have long held that many detainees were “not so innocents abroad”; see the links below and make up your own mind. But Hoban raises the issue of YPT’s liability, and perhaps even legal liability. The problem: a culture of boozy nonchalance that even included “the dash along the “secret floor” of the Yanggakdo International Hotel…as a rite of passage for misbehaving twentysomethings looking for thrills, spills and stories to brag about back home.” How disingenuous is it to then claim that it is too risky for YPT to take on any more Americans?

Naturally, a travel ban is in the works. I have reflected on whether a travel—rather than a more narrow tourism—ban is appropriate. On their Facebook page, and endorsed by other groups such as Divided Families, the Council of Korean Americans issued an appeal on the issue, worried that a wider ban would affect humanitarian activities, family reunions and Track II diplomacy. This surprisingly obvious issue is in fact not so obvious, and maintaining the general licenses for select engagement with North Korea is warranted.

Just a few more reactions at random:

  • Jeffrey Lewis at Foreign Policy titles his reflection North Korea Will Not Hesitate to Kill You. The point: since Pyongyang has no conception of individuals having rights, anyone is ultimately fair game.
  • A brief interview with Christopher Hill at the New York Times reflects the wisdom of a diplomat who understands the frustrations of dealing with the North Koreans, and the fact that easy solutions—such as military ones—probably don’t exist.
  • Dennis Rodman’s interview on Good Morning America. Rodman continues to misfire on the issue (Kim Jong Un is just a friendly guy, we always talk, sing karaoke, ride horses; I just don't think about the politics. People in Pyongyang are happy. But I still believe there are parts of this story that remain to be clarified. Rodman’s wingman claimed in the interview that they had asked about Warmbier’s release three times in the course of planning this trip; Rodman continues to believe that he had at least something to do with Warmbier’s release. Is the sports diplomacy part of the Rodman visit still alive?

North Korea: Witness Posts on the Detainees

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