Warmbier reaches one year of detainment in North Korea

Experts weigh in on Trump’s foreign policy toward DPRK

Otto Frederick Warmbier (3rd R), a University of Virginia student who has been detained in North Korea since early January, attends a news conference in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo February 29, 2016. Warmbier was detained for trying to steal a propaganda slogan from his Pyongyang hotel and has confessed to "severe crimes" against the state, the North's official media said on Monday. Warmbier, 21, was detained before boarding his flight to China over an unspecified incident at his hotel, his tour agency told Reuters in January. Mandatory credit REUTERS/Kyodo ATTENTION EDITORS - FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. MANDATORY CREDIT. JAPAN OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN JAPAN. - RTS8H5V © KYODO Kyodo / Reuters | Cavalier Daily

University student Otto Warmbier remains detained in North Korea, and few details about his case have emerged since he was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years of hard labor for alleged crimes against the country.

Come Jan. 20 — if North Korea continues to hold Warmbier until then — Donald Trump’s administration will inherit his detainment. Some experts, however, say there are many unknowns when it comes to anticipating how Trump will interact with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The past year

Warmbier entered North Korea in December 2015 with Young Pioneer Tours — a company offering “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” Following his five-day tour, he was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport as he prepared to leave the DPRK on Jan. 2.

News of his arrest was first reported Jan. 22, but it wasn’t until late February that Warmbier appeared before cameras in a press conference, where he confessed to attempting to steal a political banner.

Warmbier claimed he had attempted to steal the banner from a staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel with the support of an Ohio church, the U.S. government and the Z Society.

Later released CCTV footage appeared to show a man taking a banner referencing the late Kim Jong-il, the father of North Korea’s current ruler Kim Jong-un. Such an act would be seen as subversive in a country where the ruling family is considered sacrosanct.

It is unknown if his confession was coerced.

An hourlong trial before the North Korean Supreme Court led Warmbier to receive a 15-year sentence of hard labor on March 16. In response, the U.S. State Department quickly labeled the sentence as “unduly harsh” and urged for his release on humanitarian grounds.

There have been few updates in Warmbier’s case since his sentencing, although the State Department has since updated its travel warning for North Korea.

Warmbier’s lengthy detainment is not the longest a U.S. citizen has been detained in the DPRK — Kenneth Bae was detained for nearly two years in North Korea between 2012 and 2014 — but most detainees only spend several months in detainment before being released.

University spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn offered a short statement on the case.

“The University continues to closely follow the unfortunate situation involving Otto Warmbier and remains in regular contact with the Warmbier family,” de Bruyn said in an email statement.

In a statement issued ahead of the one-year mark of Warmbier’s detainment, State Department spokesperson John Kirby called for his release.

“The United States government continues to actively work to secure Mr. Warmbier’s earliest possible release,” Kirby said. “Mr. Warmbier has gone through the criminal process and has been detained for almost a full year. We continue to urge the DPRK to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.”

Kirby also noted the lack of consular services provided to Warmbier, who was last visited by a representative of the Swedish Embassy on March 2. Since the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations with the DPRK, the Swedish Embassy acts as the “protecting power” for American citizens in North Korea.

“Even when requested by the Swedish Embassy, however, the DPRK still routinely delays or denies consular access to U.S. citizens,” Kirby said.

Kirby did not offer further comment on the case.

Trump’s role

“We don’t know anything new. The progress has been very slow,” Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson in December.

Richardson has been involved in previous detainment cases and met with North Korean diplomats in March to discuss Warmbier’s detainment. A humanitarian mission associated with the Richardson Center for Global Engagement advocated for Warmbier’s release on a trip to the DPRK in September.

“A gesture of goodwill by the North Koreans with the new Trump administration, I think would be very welcome,” Richardson said on Fox. “And the Trump [transition team], they are interested, but they aren’t in [office] yet.”

Richardson said his staff had been in touch with president-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about Warmbier’s case. However, citing the sensitivity of the matter, the center declined to comment when The Cavalier Daily inquired about conversations with the incoming administration.

The Trump transition team also did not return multiple requests for comment for this article. It is unclear how Trump will approach Warmbier’s case and foreign policy towards North Korea more generally.

“It’s conceivable that as president, Trump will make North Korea a priority,” former State Department official David Straub said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. “He’s mentioned it publicly a number of times.”

Straub previously served as head of the State Department’s Office of Korean Affairs and also traveled to North Korea with former president Bill Clinton to secure the release of detained journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling in 2009.

Trump has expressed a willingness to talk with Kim Jong-un, but he has also suggested getting China to make Kim Jong-un “disappear.” He has also questioned the cost of maintaining U.S. military bases in South Korea and raised the possibility of withdrawing forces from the Korean peninsula — an idea that received praise from the DPRK.

As recently as Monday, Trump tweeted that North Korea’s development of a nuclear weapon capable of reaching the U.S. “won't happen.”

Straub said what Trump will do, however, is yet to be seen.

“Based upon what he’s said and how he’s acted, we can go all the way from saying that he’ll personally go on a plane to North Korea and try to negotiate the release of our hostages and end the nuclear missile program, all the way to him launching war on North Korea,” Straub said. “There’s just no way to know.”

Assoc. Politics Prof. Todd Sechser said North Korea has not shown interest in discussing terms of release for Warmbier and Kim Dong Chul — a detained American citizen who has been accused of espionage — which Sechser said is unusual in comparison to past cases.

“It's likely that North Korea has been biding its time, waiting for the next administration before making any moves,” Sechser said in an email statement. “Trump has said that he'd be willing to open a dialogue with Kim Jong-un, so Pyongyang may sense an opportunity to use these prisoners to open negotiations once Trump takes office.”

Detainments often involve high level envoys — Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, as well as former presidents Clinton and Jimmy Carter have traveled to the DPRK to secure the release of Americans — but time may be running out for the current administration to negotiate any such trip.

Stephan Haggard, professor of Korea-Pacific Studies and the director of the Korea-Pacific program at the University of California, San Diego, said an envoy visit requires planning and the understanding that the detainee will be released.

“This means that there has to be someone on our side who is actively working the issue,” Haggard said in an email statement.

Haggard said he doubts such a visit will be arranged before Trump assumes office on Jan. 20.

“I suspect it will take several months after Trump’s inauguration to get any focus on this given the other issues on the president’s plate,” he said.

Straub suggested North Korea could be interested in using Warmbier as a bargaining chip in negotiations related to the country’s nuclear program and attempts to gain recognition as a nuclear state. A North Korean diplomat who defected from the DPRK recently announced North Korea aims to develop its program by the end of 2017 “at all costs.”

“Because that is Kim’s goal and he couldn’t achieve that under Obama, that’s probably why Mr. Warmbier is being kept because he then becomes a tiddlywink for Kim Jong-un to play with a new administration,” Straub said.

Trump has not shared much about his strategy when it comes to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

“Nobody knows how the Trump administration will approach North Korea — maybe not even Trump himself … How far is Trump willing to let North Korea's nuclear program progress? If he has a red line, how does he plan to enforce it?” Sechser said. “President Obama, like Bush and Clinton before him, decided that stopping North Korea's nuclear program wasn't worth starting a war on the Korean peninsula. Trump will have to confront the same tradeoff.” 

related stories