Trump, Kim, and the Death of Otto Warmbier
Even some of President Trump's habitually vociferous critics are right now inclined to agree that he did the right thing in walking away from the Hanoi summit with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un. In doing so, Trump defied not only Kim's duplicitous demands, but also the dire predictions from assorted American pundits and former policy-makers that Trump would sell out his own country at this second meeting, whether by contenting himself with a nuclear-armed North Korea, endorsing a phony peace deal, or generally giving away the store in self-interested pursuit of a Nobel Peace Prize.
Among the Furies warning of these risks was former Obama administration official Susan Rice, opining in the New York Times that "If he can punt the complex North Korean nuclear threat to the end of his presidency without being disturbed by new tests, Mr. Trump would seem content to claim victory and leave the problem to his successors."
Rice ought to know plenty about that approach. She served as President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations during his first term, and national security advisor during his second term. During those years, from early 2009 to early 2017, Obama developed and refined his do-nothing "strategic patience" on North Korea. When Kim inherited power upon the death of his father in late 2011, he availed himself of Obama's "patience" to consolidate control and carry out an unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests, plus -- during Rice's tenure as national security advisor -- three nuclear tests (one in 2013, and two in 2016, on top of his father's previous two tests in 2006 and 2009).
No-drama Obama downplayed the danger of North Korea, telling NBC News in April 2013 that he did not believe North Korea could fit a nuclear warhead on a missile. But by the time Obama was packing up to leave the White House, he was telling President-elect Trump that on the national security front, North Korea was "the most urgent problem" he'd face. Obama left Trump to deal with a North Korea that had advanced far enough in its weapons programs to greet Trump's first nine months in office with successful tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles, increasingly credible threats of nuclear strikes on the U.S., and the test in Sept. 2017 of what was likely a hydrogen bomb.
The threats posed by North Korea are not gone, not by a long shot. But to date, Trump has been actively maneuvering to try to stop them, in the face of the growing risks bequeathed by a series of predecessors who failed to do so. Presidents Clinton and Bush both sent relays of envoys and lavished aid and other concessions on Pyongyang, only to pile up a series of failed nuclear deals. Obama, intent on his nuclear deal with Iran, largely shrugged off North Korea, with disastrous results. Trump, with his mix of sanctions and bait, with his zig-zag from publicly threatening Kim with "fire and fury" in 2017, to embracing him at a summit in 2018, has opened up some room to maneuver -- without yet giving away the store.
The basic problem is that North Korea's regime has proved the most enduring totalitarian system of the past century. Kim's grandfather was installed by Stalin as North Korea's founding tyrant at the end of World War II, wielding power that has now been entrenched, honed and passed along down three generations. The only real remedy for Kim's threats to the world and cruelties at home lies not in some meticulously hashed-out deal, but in an end to his regime. But how?
Despite America's overwhelming military advantages, coupled with the strength of a prosperous and democratic South Korea, backed up by the security concerns of a wealthy and democratic Japan, no American president has been willing to risk a second hot war on the Korean peninsula to dethrone the Kim dynasty with force. So, on and on the maneuvering goes, while the message beamed out to other tyrants of the world is that it pays to behave as a nuclear-arming psychopath.
For generations, North Korea's Kim regime, with its rogue art of the deal, has done well for itself by keeping its foes off balance -- punctuating its threats with diplomatic enticements. Trump in his own way has doubled down on that approach, as he just did by flying all the way to Vietnam to talk with Kim, and then walking from the table. It's no bad thing that Kim, arriving in Hanoi with demands for sweeping concessions from the American president, got nothing but dinner, and was left to contemplate the relative wealth, compared to North Korea, of the non-nuclear despotism that is Vietnam.
Meantime, Trump, during a refueling stop at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, en route back to Washington, talked about his efforts to beef up the U.S. military, and praised the troops and their warplanes, telling them: "It's great to be standing in this hangar with an F-22 Raptor, the mighty sound of American freedom." In the showdowns now playing out between America and the predatory dictatorships of East Asia, those remarks were not just a chance to get some applause from the troops or distract from the Michal Cohen hoopla in Washington. They were important and threatening messages, not only for Kim, but also for his chief patrons, China's President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
But during the whirlwind stop in Hanoi, Trump got one thing quite wrong. In Trump's otherwise masterful press conference in Hanoi, having passed the test of handling the summit, he flunked a question about the death of Otto Warmbier, the American college student killed by North Korea's monstrous regime. Otto went on a holiday tour of North Korea just over three years ago and was arrested there on New Year's Day, 2016, accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster. North Korea's regime paraded him before the cameras to deliver a forced "confession," sentenced him to 15 years at hard labor, and then, in secret, abused him so atrociously that he was reduced to a vegetative state. The following year, North Korea finally released him, in that condition, to be flown home on June 13, 2017, to his family in Ohio, where he died six days later.
Toward the end of Trump's press conference in Hanoi, a reporter asked him if he had confronted Kim about the death of Otto Warmbier. Had he asked Kim to take responsibility?
Trump replied: "I have, and we have talked about it." Trump went on to say that what happened to Warmbier was "horrible." Trump should have left it there. But he didn't. He went on to say he didn't think Warmbier's death was in Kim's interest, and Kim "tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word."
By Thursday evening, this exchange was dominating the coverage of the Trump-Kim summit, with politicians and press alike condemning Trump for coddling and covering up for a dictator. CBS News was reporting, "Lawmakers call Otto Warmbier's treatment 'unforgivable' after Trump defends Kim." CNN was denouncing "Donald Trump's shocking, shameful about-face on Otto Warmbier." NBC News was running the headline, "'Inconceivable' that Kim Jong Un wasn't aware of Otto Warmbier: Ex-U.N. ambassador."
Fair enough, as far as it goes. Kim is a swaggering tyrant who runs the most repressive regime on earth, a monstrous tyranny buttressed by prison camps and a pervasive network of informers and enforcers, all under his self-declared monolithic rule. Trump himself described it quite well in a speech in late 2017 to the National Assembly in Seoul. In this system, North Koreans condemned to years at hard labor may be consigned to faceless agonies, but American prisoners stand out -- not least because they figure for Kim as valuable hostages, to be manipulated, exploited and effectively ransomed in exchange for concessions.
It is possible that Kim did not personally order the devastating damage inflicted on Otto Warmbier; that it was done by thugs within Kim's system who were meant to torment their prisoner, but not kill him. That does not excuse Kim Jong Un, who, as his own propaganda endlessly reminds his own countrymen, is the supreme ruler of everyone and everything in North Korea. Otto was last seen on camera when he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in March 2016. North Korea then held him completely incommunicado for another 15 months. Sometime early in that interval, his North Korean jailers did something -- never satisfactorily explained -- that caused him to suffer massive brain damage.
Kim was certainly responsible. It's implausible that without his nod Otto would have been jailed in North Korea in the first place. And it is indeed hard to believe that whatever was done to Otto, Kim with his layers upon layers of internal surveillance and control, was not at the very least informed. It behooves us all to keep fresh in mind the abominations of this tyrant, the brutal system with which he keeps power, the horrors he inflicted on Otto Warmbier and the anguish of Otto's family. These are among the reasons Trump has been flying halfway around the world, to Singapore last June and to Hanoi this week, in the effort to strip Kim of his nuclear weapons.
If American journalists want to remind their readers of the monstrous realities of North Korea's regime, more power to them. But if the aim of reviewing this agony is chiefly to write off Trump wholesale as a fool and friend to dictators, that rings false. Where were the legions of outraged reporters and politicians back in 2016 when Otto was taken prisoner?
That happened during Obama's presidency, which at the time of Otto Warmbier's arrest in North Korea had another full year to run. Yes, when North Korea arrested, paraded and sentenced Otto, there was an official protest from the Obama administration and outrage in the press. But there wasn't anywhere near enough.
When Otto, under the gaze of his North Korean captors, recited the bizarre confession that had clearly been scripted for him, major news outlets such as NPR couldn't bring themselves to describe it as coerced. Instead, NPR treated us to such twaddle as: "It's unclear whether Warmbier, 21, spoke of his own volition or whether he was pressured into making the statement." NBC News, now endowed with such clarity about the workings of Kim's grotesque system, hedged its coverage with the astounding comment: "It was not apparent whether his confession was coerced."
Actually, it was entirely clear that Otto's confession was forced. The journalistic prevarications about that were not an exercise in due diligence; they were a dereliction of basic sense -- misleading to their audience, and an appalling injustice to Otto Warmbier.
Much worse, however, was the laconic approach to this case of President Obama, who had at his command all the instruments of power later passed on to Trump, but whose administration treated Warmbier's case with the same muffled lack of urgency it brought to most of the North Korea portfolio.
Typical of this approach was the response by Obama's press secretary, Josh Earnest. When asked at a White House briefing, in March 2016, for a reaction to Otto's sentencing. Earnest recited, in sleek bureaucratese, that "there is no greater priority for this administration than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad," and "now that Mr. Warmbier has gone through this criminal process, we strongly urge the North Korean government to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and release."
In Otto's native Ohio, former Governor John Kasich tried repeatedly to get Obama to move urgently on the case. Shortly after Otto's arrest in North Korea, Kasich released a public letter addressed to Obama, asking "that you and Secretary of State John Kerry make every effort to secure Mr. Warmbier's immediate release." No such luck.
Otto Warmbier's parents, desperate to rescue their son, were discouraged by Obama administration officials from speaking out. Instead, as Otto's father, Fred Warmbier, finally told the press more than a year later, Otto's family was instructed by Obama officials to "take a low profile while they worked to obtain his release." In the autumn of 2016, according to Time, a former New Mexico governor, who had also served as President Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, quietly sent a delegation to North Korea "to discuss, among other things, the possibility of Warmbier's release." Apparently, Kim, busy with his missile and nuclear tests, was not impressed.
In Jan. 2017, Trump became president. One of his first concerns upon taking office was to rescue Americans held prisoner in North Korea (without sending pallets of cash).
Within five months, he brought Otto home.
By February, a month into his presidency, Trump had instructed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to do all he could. In April, apparently without knowing that this was being done, Otto's parents decided they'd had enough of keeping quiet. Otto's father gave an interview to Fox News, in which he said, "President Trump, I ask you: Bring my son home." By May, the State Department's special envoy to North Korea, Joseph Yun, was pursuing the case at informal talks in Oslo with North Korean officials.
On June 6, Yun received the horrifying news, via a North Korean diplomat posted at the UN in New York, that Warmbier was in a coma.
Within a week, Trump dispatched Yun and a medical team aboard a plane to Pyongyang to bring Warmbier home. Trump did not ask North Korea's permission to do this; his team simply informed North Korea that it was happening. Upon landing in Pyongyang, Yun demanded Otto's release. It's worth bearing in mind that in thus prying Otto out of Kim's hands, Yun was taking a significant risk -- and so, as commander-in-chief, was Trump. It was much too late to save Otto, who had suffered catastrophic damage during the Obama era of strategic patience and low-profile diplomacy. But Trump and his team did all they could. They got him out of North Korea, and back to his family before he died.
In Nov. 2017, Trump righted a wrong of the previous two administrations -- both Obama and Bush -- by returning North Korea to the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. That made it possible for the Warmbier family to sue North Korea in a U.S. federal court, which they did, with a judge last December awarding them more than $500 million in damages -- though there's no clear way for them to collect.
Today, in response to Trump's excuses made for Kim at the Hanoi press conference, Otto Warmbier's parents, Fred and Cindy, released a statement via the Washington-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea that strikes exactly the right note, saying:
"We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that."
Quite right. Trump, in pursuing his diplomacy, should not be running cover for Kim.
But those critics of Trump who are now condemning him wholesale as an inveterate friend and patsy of dictators might want to consider: The reason he's been going through these diplomatic contortions in the first place is to try to ensure that the rest of us do not have to live in the nuclear crosshairs of the North Korean tyrant responsible for the terrible death of Otto Warmbier. Perhaps the real lesson here is that it's time we all turned our attention to the basic problem that has dogged one American president after another: The imperative should not be how to reach a deal with Kim's regime in North Korea, but how to bring it down.