For the alleged offense of trying to steal a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel, North Korea has now imposed a sentence of 15 years of prison and hard labor on a visiting American college student, Otto Frederick Warmbier. The U.S. State Department, in a classic piece of diplomatic understatement, has called this sentence “unduly harsh,” and repeated its warning against travel to North Korea.
No doubt it was foolish of Warmbier to go to North Korea at all. It was doubly foolish if, indeed, the 21-year-old Warmbier while visiting North Korea tried to filch one of the ubiquitous propaganda posters — which North Korea’s people are required, by their tyrant, to treat as sacred writ. The civilized world still awaits the day when all such North Korean propaganda will be torn down wholesale, and dumped where it belongs — in that vast Ozymandias trashpit of history’s discarded lies.
But the real foolishness here has almost nothing to do with Otto Warmbier. It has everything to do with a U.S. policy that has repeatedly rewarded North Korea for this hostage racket. There is by now a ritual to such proceedings. An American citizen trespasses onto North Korean turf, or arrives with a tour group and commits a transgression against Pyongyang’s totalitarian rules. North Korea turns these people into propaganda pawns and international bargaining chips, imposing absurd sentences and effectively demanding high-profile ransom — typically in the form of a prominent figure who travels to North Korea to petition for their release.
Thus did former president Bill Clinton go to Pyongyang in 2009, to bring home two employees of Al Gore’s former Current TV station. In 2010, former president Jimmy Carter went to North Korea to retrieve another de facto American hostage. In late 2014, President Obama dispatched the U.S. director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, to bring home another two imprisoned Americans.
The official U.S. line is that America does not provide ransom in such cases. But even if we grant the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt, and assume that there are no material favors dispensed by Washington behind the scenes, it is still a whopping concession by the U.S. to be sending former presidents, or any serving senior American official, to ask Pyongyang to please, please let these people go. That, in itself, amounts to America legitimizing the North Korean regime, and bowing down before it in tribute.
That’s a dangerous message to send North Korea, and a dangerous display to put on, repeatedly, before the world. It is at cross-purposes with the sanctions the U.S. is imposing on North Korea, thus likely to dilute the incentives for some countries to comply. And while the de facto hostage-taking of the occasional visiting American may seem small stuff compared to the fireworks of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, it has also proved, for North Korea, an extremely low cost way of pressuring the American government to dance to Pyongyang’s tune.
What to do? America wants its citizens back. It would be a good thing to see Warmbier returned safely home from the nightmare he is surely enduring at this moment — a prisoner of North Korea, facing 15 years of hard labor, which in North Korea could easily amount to a death sentence, unless someone, somehow, steps in to save him.
Unless something changes, this scenario will repeat, and repeat. It is virtually impossible to ensure that no American will ever stray, or be lured, into Pyongyang’s ultimate tourist trap.
What has to happen, somehow, some way, is that North Korea has to discover that instead of a fat reward, there is a direct and crushing cost to treating American citizens as chips to be cashed in for tribute. How that gets done is a tough call. Sanctions alone are highly unlikely to solve this problem. To really assess the options would probably require access to classified information that you and I dare not pursue. But America pours resources into providing its top decision-makers with information to help deal with precisely such contingencies — if only they would heed it, and find the backbone to make use of it. Those who do have access should be racking their brains right now for ways to alter what has evidently become a routine North Korean calculus about the terrific cost-benefit ratios of playing hostage politics with citizens of the United States.
The official approach of warning Americans not to visit North Korea is good advice as far as it goes. But it would behoove the world’s superpower to deliver the real warning to North Korea itself, in terms likely to stick: Do not dare to mess this way with Americans.