Otto Warmbier: 15 Years



The idea that Otto Warmbier, a college student from the University of Virginia, would get 15 years of hard labor for trying to grab a college trophy from North Korea is actually highly revealing. First, it shows the complete disproportionality of the country’s authoritarian legal and penal system and the absurd stories prosecutors are willing to concoct to foment domestic paranoia of the outside world. The Warmbier case falls into the category of a handful of other detainees: the ill-conceived college prank gone awry. In Warmbier’s confession he tells a bizarre–and wholly incredible–story of being offered a $10,000 used car (and $200,000 compensation if he gets caught) from an American churchgoer in return for stealing a political banner. Second it shows the willingness of Kim Jong Un to use essentially any tactic available to squeeze out leverage. The idea that the US would change anything it is doing because of Warmbier is a pretty gross miscalculation.

For the release of Americans detained in the DPRK, historically the North Koreans have demanded high profile American figures—usually current or former government officials—to visit Pyongyang. This happened most recently when Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited Pyongyang to free Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller in November 2014. For Merrill Newman, who was released in December 2013, back channel communications with Dennis Rodman and Bill Richardson were part of the equation. In 2009 Bill Clinton made the trip to Pyongyang to secure the release of reporters Laura Ling and Euna Lee.

But there is no precise model for how to get detainees out. Another detainee, Jeffrey Fowle, was released in October 2014 without any high-level visit. The nature of the “crime” is also a factor and the fact that the regime has categorized the theft of a political banner as subversion is not good. However Warmbier is released it will likely require complex negotiations through the “New York Channel” and Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, which provides consular services to Americans in the DPRK.

In Warmbier’s (obviously coerced) confession he mentions his excellent treatment by the DPRK authorities; at some level, the North Koreans do care about global perceptions. Suffice it to say, a show trial of a college kid with with exaggerated charges and an extreme punishment does little to dispel the DPRK’s pariah image. We highly doubt that Warmbier will serve 15 years, but in the meantime our hearts go out to him and his family.

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