Anyone with human feelings is outraged by North Korea’s murder of Otto Warmbier.
The term “murder” is justified, although we don’t know exactly how this bright, adventurous student was brutalized after his arrest on a tourist visit to North Korea. No other word describes the crime of sentencing Otto to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, then holding him for more than a year while he lay in a coma – and cutting off any diplomatic access to him.
Yet note that, unlike Sen. John McCain, President Donald Trump did not use the word murder in denouncing Warmbier’s death.
That’s because the Trump team, like three previous administrations, is struggling to find a strategy to prevent Pyongyang from fully developing nuclear weapons. Trump advisers must have warned him to avoid threats that might provoke North Korea.
So will there ever be justice for Otto? And will there ever be punishment for North Korea’s human-rights crimes against its own people, which may rival those of the Nazis or Khmer Rouge in their horror and scope?
“In the dichotomy between the nuclear issue and the extraordinary human and personalized dimension of what North Korea has wrought, the human rights piece gets overlooked,” says Scott A. Snyder, director of the program on U.S.-Korea relations at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Few Americans are aware of the massive system of concentration camps run by the North Koreans for anyone deemed the least critical of the regime – and for the families of such “traitors.” A U.N. commission report, in 2014, complete with satellite photos of the camps, estimated that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades.
“The inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labor, executions, torture, rape, and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion, and infanticide,” the commission found.
“The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian states established during the 20th century.”
Given such chilling fanaticism, the vicious treatment of Otto Warmbier does not seem so surprising. But the University of Virginia student “was also a huge victim of geopolitical circumstances,” says Snyder. His arrest in January 2016 came just at the time of North Korea’s fourth nuclear test and his trial not long before their fifth. That meant the Obama administration, and the international community “were consumed with how to impose sanctions on North Korea and make North Korea hurt.”
Perhaps the Obama White House should have tried harder to win Warmbier’s release – as Trump implied in a tweet. But at a time when Washington was taking a tough line on sanctions, Pyongyang was unlikely to have responded to a request on a hostage without receiving concessions. And concessions were not in the cards.
Which brings us again to the dilemma that U.S. administrations, including Trump’s, have struggled with unsuccessfully since the 1990s: How to get the North Korean regime to stop threatening its own people, the region, American citizens and the world?
When Trump took office, many of his supporters – and many of my readers – assumed he would just bomb North Korea into submission. The problem with that approach, even before Kim Jong-un tested nukes and a whole range of missiles, was that his heavy artillery could respond to a conventional strike by destroying Seoul, the South Korean capital. His artillery could also kill many of the 30,000 U.S. soldiers based in South Korea.
Today, Kim’s missiles can reach Tokyo and he has an arsenal of chemical weapons. Nor would bombing be likely to end the North Korean regime, or destroy Kim’s hidden nuclear stockpile. It would just make him move more quickly to put warheads on ICBMs that could reach the United States.
In other words, a military option offers huge risks and insufficient rewards, as Trump already appears to realize. So he placed his hopes heavily on China, whose economic support is essential to Pyongyang’s survival. He hoped that Beijing would pressure Kim into better behavior.
Trump’s latest tweets indicate that that hope has faded, as most China experts had predicted. China fears instability in Pyongyang, and regime collapse, more than it fears Kim’s nuclear program.
So Snyder believes it’s time for Trump to downgrade his full faith in Beijing, and increase coordination with allies South Korea and Japan. He also thinks Trump should consider secondary sanctions on Chinese firms and banks that do business with Pyongyang.
But if Warmbier’s death affected Trump as deeply as he claims, Snyder also hopes it will impel the White House to factor the human-rights issue into a new approach.
Because North Korea is so isolated, and international access to the country so limited, the regime is able to commit its human-rights outrages out of sight. That isolation can be breached, and transparency imposed, says Snyder, if the international community publicizes the powerful indictment of abuses contained in the U.N. report.
“North Korea treasures international prestige,” Snyder notes, and shining a bright light on their humanitarian crimes may force Kim to reconsider some practices. It might also lead to better treatment or release of three captive Americans.
“This one (Warmbier) case helps the human-rights dimension break through,” Snyder says, adding, “That won’t bring satisfaction and accountability.”
But if the United States finally leads the way in shining a light on North Korea’s obscene crimes against humanity this might at least give some meaning to Otto Warmbier’s death.
Trudy Rubin’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.