The tragic passing of Otto Warmbier on Monday, June 19, says a lot about the North Korean system. His case is highly unusual because North Korea tends not to treat its foreign prisoners with physical brutality such that they sustain any permanent injuries. We still do not know what exactly happened to the 22-year old college student during his approximately one and a half-year long detention in North Korea, beginning in January last year. After he was returned to America only six days before his death, Warmbier’s doctors said he had lost a severe amount of brain tissue during his time in North Korea and said that MRI scans showed he had most likely suffered a brain injury shortly after he was convicted to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016. They found no clear signs of beatings, torture, or the like. North Korean doctors claimed he contracted botulism, took a sleeping pill and never woke up, but American doctors found no evidence of botulism.
But whatever happened to Warmbier during his time in North Korean captivity, it is not unusual for people to be treated in inhumane ways by the North Korean system. Even though we know nothing about exactly how Warmbier was treated in captivity, the fact that the North Koreans kept him for so long after his state became life-threatening itself shows a lack of care for humane considerations when political ones are at stake.
For all the jokes that people outside the country crack about its leader and cult of personality, some may forget that North Korea remains a harsh police state. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have been subject to treatment equal to, or worse than, what Warmbier was put through. North Korean labor camps are filled with people imprisoned for actions that would never be considered criminal in any Western justice system, but which the North Korean state deems to be politically offensive, such as smuggling in culture from the outside world. In no other state than a brutally totalitarian one could a young man be sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda banner, which is what happened to Warmbier. North Korean authorities claimed that he had conspired together with a church in his home state to overthrow the system of the country, but they offered little evidence.
It is also difficult to discern any strategic logic in the North Korean handling of the case. In the past, North Korea has released several Americans from captivity after high-level visits by American public figures. For example, American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were freed from North Korean captivity in August 2009 (they were originally captured in March the same year) after former President Bill Clinton made a visit to Pyongyang to bring them home. When then-U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper visited Pyongyang in 2014, to bring home jailed Americans Kenneth Bae and Todd Miller, he described the disappointment of the North Koreans he interacted with that he was not there to give Pyongyang any diplomatic victories:
“The debate and dialogue started immediately in the car with Mr. Kim,” Mr. Clapper continued. “They were expecting some big breakthrough. I was going to offer some big deal, I don’t know, a recognition, a peace treaty, whatever. Of course, I wasn’t there to do that, so they were disappointed, I’ll put it that way.”
By contrast, North Korea’s mistreatment of Otto Warmbier served the regime no discernable purpose. On the contrary, the impression now is that North Korea did not at all release him on humanitarian grounds, like it claimed, but that the regime simply did not want him to die on their soil. It is difficult to see any North Korean gain in what happened, and meanwhile, the losses are clear. Tourism, a small industry that Kim Jong-un has wanted to nurture, will probably suffer a drop, not least in American visitors. About 5,000 Westerners visit North Korea each year, and around 1,000 of them come from the United States. Since the two aforementioned American journalists were imprisoned in 2009, a total of 14 Americans have been jailed in North Korea. Currently, three remain. Young Pioneer Tours, which brought Otto Warmbier to North Korea, has already announced that they will not take Americans on their tours in the future. It is not inconceivable that the U.S. government will introduce measures to further discourage or outright ban travel to North Korea, like it long did with travel to Cuba (a measure that may soon be reinstated). Each tourist that spends money on a trip to North Korea by extension (since all tour operators inside North Korea are tied to the state) helps fund the regime’s activities, including its nuclear and missiles programs. Some argue that tourism to North Korea can build cultural bridges and foster mutual respect: as an interesting aside, in a show of support of South Korean policies of rapprochement, the U.S. government said in 1988 it would strive to make group travel and exchanges to North Korea by Americans easier.
To this day, however, it is unclear what positive impacts tourism and engagement with North Korea has brought. For long, talks have periodically been held between North Korean and U.S. envoys and both current and former government officials, in unofficial settings. In recent times, they have focused on issues such as American detainees in North Korea, while North Korea has continued its nuclear and missile tests, reaching increasingly high levels of sophistication. American advocates of talks and negotiations with North Korea will face an even more difficult environment after Warmbier’s passing. There has been scattered chatter about the possibilities of a summit meeting between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Most of it has been founded in naïve hope and mere speculation. Prospects for U.S. government engagement with North Korea seem even more dire now since the White House would be unlikely to want to grant favors to a regime whose treatment of one of its citizens caused the latter’s death.
Perhaps some in the North Korean power apparatus argued for his release far earlier, while more hardline forces refused until his health deteriorated to a point of no return. The North Korean healthcare system is far from any Western standards. At this point, however, all reasoning about the causes for North Korea’s actions are purely speculative. Perhaps, we will only know about the decisions that led to Warmbier’s death if the North Korean secret police archives are opened one day in the future.