Warmbier and Rodman



On Monday I wrote a post reflecting on how far we should push sanctions on North Korea. I argued that a tourist ban might well be appropriate to curtail the regime’s revenue. It would prevent what I increasingly see as a hostage, not “detainee,” problem; enough with euphemisms. But a travel ban could cut into humanitarian and other people-to-people contact, general licenses from Treasury offering exemptions notwithstanding. Then on Wednesday, Andrew Yeo (Catholic University) wrote up some of hisfindings on the extent of people-to-people contacts with North Korea, showing their extent and making the case for such engagement efforts.

As Josh Stanton quickly tweeted, do I want to reconsider? The tragedy of Otto Warmbier is an advertisement not just for a tourism but a wider travel ban. And Dennis Rodman—with his Potcoin crew in tow—is the poster child for why people-to-people contact deserves a healthy dose of skepticism.

Was my timing good or miserable?

The facts of the case do not suggest easy answers, particularly if we explore the nature of “engagement” that has occurred around this episode. First, let’s look at the sequence of events (which has gotten outstanding coverage by the Washington Post and particularly the piece(link is external)  by Susan Svrluga and Anna Fifield). Most fundamentally, Warmbier was evacuated because he had become a political liability; to date, at least, we have no significant information on the fate of the other three detainees, all of whom not coincidentally are Korean-America (see our posts on them herehere and here and on all of the detainees below). What could make the case for North Korea’s pariah status more clearly than a clean-cut college kid falling into a mysterious coma while serving 15 years for a prank?

But hostages do not just magically get released. Warmbier’s sad homecoming included a willingness to talk not only on the part of North Korea but the US as well. The State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun met secretly with high-level North Korean officials last month in Oslo on the sidelines of a Track II dialogue. This channel proved important. Last week, Yun met again with North Korean officials in New York and was notified of Warmbier’s condition. Yun informed Secretary Tillerson, who consulted with President Trump. Within days, Yun was dispatched to Pyongyang to retrieve Warmbier.

While our prayers are with the Warmbiers, there are still three Americans being held hostage that need to be released. This will only happen if these channels remain open.

And what do we make of the Rodman show? He has been roundly condemned as a tool of the regime, in part for his bad timing (the first visit came in 2013 in the wake of third nuclear test), and in part for his bad taste (singing Happy Birthday to the Dear Marshall, Friend for Life). But let’s run a parallel tape in which a group of American, Chinese, Japanese, Russian and South Korean weightlifters go to Pyongyang for a friendly. Or—more likely—North Korea comes to the winter Olympic Games in the South, following up on some other recent North-South icebreakers. To be sure, the Kim regime uses its sports program for political purposes. But ping-pong diplomacy with China was a sensation, and it arguably had an effect.

Everyone who watches North Korea knows that the chances of successful engagement with North Korea are a long-shot; I know no one who thinks that the likelihood of even negotiating, let alone reaching a final settlement, is high. And most if not all analysts—including me--think that sanctions are a completely legitimate tool for both defensive purposes and to get the regime to reconsider the value of its nuclear and missile programs. But if Kim Jong Un comes looking for an exit ramp, and these types of engagement help him get there, should we be carping?

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