Are there any limits to the greed, audacity and multivalent evils of North Korea’s Kim regime? It now appears that having monstrously abused and mortally injured a visiting American college student, Otto Warmbier, Kim Jong-un’s regime then handed the U.S. a bill for Otto’s medical care — as a condition of releasing him, in a vegetative state, to be flown home to die.
To quickly recap this awful case: Otto Warmbier went to North Korea on a group tour in late December 2015. On Jan. 1, 2016, North Korea arrested him. Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian regime accused Otto of trying to steal a political wall banner from his hotel, and paraded him before the cameras to deliver what was clearly a forced “confession,” then sentenced him to 15 years at hard labor, then disappeared him into custody, incommunicado. For more than a year North Korea provided not a word on his condition. For most of that time, under President Obama’s North Korea “policy” of “strategic patience,” the U.S. sidelined Warmbier’s case, urging his desperate family to keep quiet. It fell to President Trump, just after taking office in 2017, to launch the push that led to the discovery that Otto while in custody had suffered massive brain damage. In June 2017, Trump dispatched an envoy, Joseph Yun, together with an emergency physician, to fly to Pyongyang — whether North Korea liked it or not — and bring Otto home.
On Thursday, Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield broke the story that when Yun arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea presented him with a $2 million bill for Otto’s hospital care. According to Fifield, North Korean officials insisted that Yun sign an agreement to pay this bill as a condition of Otto Warmbier’s release.
Fifield reports that according to two anonymous people “familiar with the situation,” Yun called from Pyongyang to inform then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of this predicament. Tillerson checked with President Trump, and on their instructions, Yun signed the agreement to pay. The bill went to Treasury, and it’s “unclear,” according to Fifield, whether Treasury ultimately paid. Fox News is now reporting that according to its own anonymous sources, the U.S. never paid — which I devoutly hope is true. Money being fungible, it’s reasonable to regard North Korea’s $2 million invoice as a bid to help bankroll such stuff as Kim Jong-un’s Rolls-Royce habit, his nuclear missile program, or, for that matter, North Korea’s vast apparatus of repression with which Kim grinds down his own people and destroyed Otto Warmbier.
Of course, with all the anonymous sources sloshing around here, it’s worth the caveat that by the quaint standards of old-fashioned journalism, none of the reporting on this $2 million North Korean invoice should be taken as rock solid. In the stories to date, there’s no clear attribution, no official confirmation, nor have we seen the invoice. In response to my queries about the story, the State Department referred me to a White House statement: “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration.”
All that said, the entire story is quite plausible and sickeningly consistent with the shakedown rackets that North Korea’s dynastic Kim regime has employed for decades to befoul civilized norms, exploit free nations, and fill the Kim family coffers. At the pinnacle of power in Pyongyang, it’s a signature family tradition to inflict horrible suffering and harm — and try to cash in on it.
So, on the assumption the reporting is accurate, and before this story devolves into the usual domestic Washington blame game, let’s try to keep the focus on the real enemy — which is Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. We can debate whether Kim might have ordered the injury inflicted on Otto Warmbier, or, as Trump suggested in Hanoi, learned about it after the fact.
But it’s a sure bet that by the time Yun flew into Pyongyang to be met with a $2 million bill for Otto’s “care,” Kim — as monolithic ruler of the world’s most perniciously controlled state — knew exactly what was going on, and had approved the attempted shakedown. Trump had braved the political risks of sending Yun to North Korea, and Yun had braved the personal risks of barnstorming his way into Pyongyang. As is usually the case with North Korea, when the squeeze came, there were no good options. Quite likely the best of the bad options, once North Korea demanded a signed IOU, was for Yun to sign the piece of paper, get Warmbier (and himself, and the emergency physician) out of North Korea’s clutches, and for the Trump administration to then refuse to honor a repugnant secret agreement signed under de facto coercion. Which is apparently how it played out.
But is there anything more to be done?
One easy move comes right to mind. How about presenting Kim with an American invoice? Not a North Korean-style jumped-up shakedown for the depraved act of destroying the life of a hostage and keeping it secret for more than a year while providing “care.” But a genuine reckoning. Let the true billing begin.
For generations, the costs inflicted on America by North Korea’s totalitarian, terror-sponsoring regime have been staggering. Even setting aside the massive cost to non-Americans, including North Koreans themselves — if we focus only on the direct costs to the U.S. — the full tally is too enormous, over too many decades, to allow for any simple bottom line. But perhaps one of those ambitious big-data handlers out there might be interested at some stage in providing a ballpark estimate. Maybe the State Department, or National Security Council, should give it a try?
Here are some items to include in the invoice. They vary from colossal to relatively small, and this is just a sampling. A full roster would be much, much longer. But in every case, North Korea’s Kim regime bears responsibility:
- The cost in blood and treasure of the 1950-53 Korean War, triggered by North Korea’s surprise invasion of the South — an attempt to enslave the entire peninsula — with a toll of more than 33,000 Americans killed in battle, and many more wounded.
- Add the cost of maintaining tens of thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea since the 1953 Armistice — 66 years of this to date — as a basic necessity to deter another invasion by North Korea’s hyper-militarized, predatory totalitarian regime.
- Throw in the more than $1 billion in U.S. humanitarian aid to North Korea from 1995-2008, much of that coopted by North Korea’s regime to feed and fuel its military while the intended beneficiaries starved.
- Add such doo-dads as the multi-million dollar charges that North Korea presented to the Bush administration in 2008 for the Potemkin gesture of blowing up an unnecessary cooling tower at the Yongbyon reactor complex.
- Factor in the costs of U.S. efforts via Navy patrols, diplomacy and law enforcement, over many years, to try to contain North Korea’s rogue weapons programs and trafficking, both conventional and nuclear.
- Add to that the $501 million owed by North Korea for damages awarded to the Warmbiers last December in a U.S. District Court, for what the judge described as “the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier, and the injuries to his mother and father, Fred and Cindy Warmbier.” Which North Korea has not paid.
That still won’t get you to the full, real cost to America of the threats, agonies and abuses inflicted over more than 70 years, down three generations of North Korea’s Kim regime. But it would be a start.