WASHINGTON – The era of “strategic patience” with North Korea is over, Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday, while about 2,500 gathered in Ohio for the funeral of Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier, the 22-year-old held captive in North Korea for 17 months for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner, died this week after returning to the U.S. in a coma. North Korean authorities apprehended the University of Virginia student in January 2016 while he was visiting the country with a tour group. He was later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and reportedly fell into an unresponsive state near the beginning of his sentence.
Following his death, the Obama administration was heavily criticized for not bringing Warmbier home during his term. The former president defended his administration’s efforts in a statement this week, saying “we had no higher priority than securing the release of Americans detained overseas” while pointing to the release of 10 Americans from North Korean custody during his two terms.
“This week, American hearts broke with the news that Otto Warmbier had passed away shortly after being returned to his family from his brutal incarceration at the hands of the regime in North Korea,” Pence said at the Wilson Center.
Warmbier’s death, he added, only deepens American determination to prevent future disgraceful treatment of prisoners. The vice president vowed to collaborate with China and other regional powers to boost economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea.
“We will do so until North Korea abandons its nuclear ballistic missile programs once and for all,” Pence said.
In a wide-ranging discussion with Wilson Center President and CEO Jane Harman, Pence also addressed relations with the communist regime in Cuba. The vice president criticized the Obama administration’s Cuba policies, which began taking significant shape in 2014 with the announcement of normalization of relations. Trump on Friday reversed course on some key Obama directives, restricting travel to the island and blocking financial transactions with entities tied to Cuba’s military regime. Pence said with the new policies in place, finances will be directed to private enterprise in Cuba instead.
“No longer will America enrich the Cuban regime at the expense of the Cuban people because America stands for opportunity, not oppression,” Pence said, adding that the U.S. will maintain this stance until Cuba frees all political prisoners, respects freedom of assembly and expression, legalizes all political parties and allows internationally supervised elections.
“That’s what American leadership looks like,” Pence said.
Pence expounded on U.S.-Central American relations, with a particular focus on immigration and drug trafficking issues in the Northern Triangle. He said the administration has three priorities for the area that encompasses Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador: destroy criminal gangs and networks, halt illegal immigration and stop streams of illegal drugs into the U.S.
According to the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, about 90 percent of cocaine that is funneled into the U.S. comes from the Central American-Mexican corridor. Pence described the administration’s multifaceted approach to the issue, which he said has been characterized by swift Justice Department action in combating criminal organizations throughout the U.S.
Pence also touched on U.S.-Mexico relations, which got off to a rocky start when President Trump promised that Mexico would pay for a controversial border wall, estimated to cost anywhere from $20 billion to $70 billion. Pence on Thursday reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to building the wall, calling Mexico a “critical partner.” The vice president praised Mexico for making progress in securing its southern border with the Northern Triangle.
“A nation without borders is not a nation,” Pence said, paraphrasing a quote from President Reagan.