(This opinion column appeared in The Kansas City Star on June 16, 2017.)
Make no mistake about it. North Korea’s horrific treatment of American college student Otto Warmbier is meant as a lesson to the United States: Give us what we want, or there is no cruelty we are not prepared to visit upon your people.
Like so much else in America today, Warmbier’s plight is being politicized. However, we would be wise not to get caught up in partisan recrimination, as that would no doubt please North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.
Let’s also not blame the victim. Yes, a trip to North Korea — a nation with which we are still officially at war — is not very prudent. And engaging in typical college hijinks in such a country (Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel) does not show great judgment. But to accuse him of “hostile acts against the state,” as North Korea did, and to sentence him to 15 years hard labor is outlandishly cruel and wholly uncalled for.
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The University of Virginia student was returned to his family this week after being detained in North Korea for 17 months. News photos showed the comatose Warmbier being carried off an airplane. Doctors in Cincinnati said he suffered extensive loss of brain tissue and described him as unresponsive and unaware of his surroundings. North Korean officials admitted he’s been in a coma for at least a year.
Warmbier did what so many other intellectually curious young men and women do in their college years. He went on a wild adventure. We praise this type of youthful exuberance, this spirited indifference to dangers that in hindsight are glaring.
Granted, his adventure was more ambitious than most. In December 2015, Warmbier took a detour to North Korea on his way to study finance in Hong Kong. It was meant to be a brief excursion, just a few days arranged by a sketchy tour company based in China.
Warmbier was arrested at the airport in Pyongyang as his flight was due to leave. Then he was subjected to a public and humiliating trial, during which he made a tearful confession. And then he disappeared into the country’s notoriously brutal penal system.
The Obama administration did not succeed in bringing the unlucky young man back home. And Warmbier’s father is understandably and vocally angry at its failure. His son’s release came only after the family recently broke with the Obama administration’s advice to avoid agitating in public while diplomatic channels were worked.
The family appeared on Fox News and asked Trump to intervene. And now their son is home, but with his brain in a condition they likely could never have imagined.
North Korea has launched 16 missiles this year and continues to test its nuclear capabilities. The Trump administration is hoping that China will help pressure North Korea, which depends on China for vital economic sustenance, to curtail its flagrant weapons testing and other militaristic provocations.
One wonders how the arrest, ill treatment and release of Warmbier fit in this diplomatic context. Was the release meant to give Trump something to gloat about? Is Warmbier being used as bait for Trump’s ego?
Three other Americans are still being held in North Korea. And some experts surmise that Warmbier became an inconvenient nuisance for North Korea as his medical condition deteriorated. He was no longer a good pawn to play because more questions and outrage would result if he had died.
Many questions remain about just what the North Koreans did to Warmbier and why. As we seek to answer them, we must avoid pitting a past administration against the present one.
Warmbier was an all-American kid. Widely circulated photos show him as a homecoming king, National Merit semi-finalist, soccer player and diver in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio, a community like so many in the Midwest. I can’t help but wonder if that made him more of a prize for North Korea to nab.
Warmbier went on an adventure. And now he has the nation praying for a miraculous recovery, for peace for his family.
But in Washington, the fundamental question remains how to deal with a regime that is unrelentingly hostile and at times seemingly insane, whether it’s taking our citizens as hostages or developing a nuclear weapons program that threatens us all.