President Trump Raises Otto Warmbier Human Rights Case in Hanoi
March 5, 2019
At a press conference following the ill-fated summit in Hanoi last week, President Donald Trump was asked whether the case of U.S. student Otto Warmbier was discussed with North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un. Warmbier was returned to his parents in June 2017 after having been imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months. He returned in a condition that medical professionals called “unresponsive wakefulness,” and he died a few days later. The president said he had raised the issue:
And I did speak about it, but I don’t believe he [Kim Jong-un] would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he was—I don’t believe he knew about it. . . . He felt badly about it. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And you’ve got a lot of people, big country, a lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things. He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.” (CNN video and Vox transcript)
The explosive reactions to the president’s comments on Otto Warmbier have roiled the media for the last several days. There have been frequent commentaries about Trump’s willingness to accept at face value the word of totalitarian leaders—Vladimir Putin denying interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Mohammed bin Salman denying responsibility or knowledge of the death of Jamal Khashoggi, and now Kim Jong-un denying knowledge of the brutality that resulted in the death of Otto Warmbier (see BBC and New York Times).
The president’s reputation for lying is well-deserved and well-documented. In this particular case involving Otto Warmbier in North Korea, however, I think there actually may be some truth in what Kim Jong-un apparently said to the president. Let me explain.
There is no question whatsoever that Kim knew that Warmbier was being held in North Korea, and it was only with his full knowledge and at his direction that the sham trial was held and the U.S. student was convicted and sentenced. But he may well not have known, directed, or approved, whatever specific action led to his being in a comatose state. However, Kim obviously knew about the condition of Otto Warmbier before he was returned to the United States, but the real question is whether he ordered it or even had advance knowledge before it happened. On that question, Kim probably could honestly say he did not.
From what we know about North Korean practice in holding U.S. citizens, they are harshly treated but not deliberately physically harmed. When U.S. citizens are held in the North, they are psychologically abused; isolated and denied access to outside contacts with relatives and friends; subject to screaming and verbal abuse; not well fed; kept in uncomfortable places; forced to do physical labor; and they generally under constant surveillance. They are forced to produce a confession that satisfies senior security officials so their imprisonment and sentences can be “justified.”
Kenneth Bae is a U.S. citizen held prisoner in North Korea for two full years (November 2012-November 2014), longer than any other U.S. hostage. Mr. Bae has published a detailed first-hand account of his experience. A New York Times reporter summarizes the experience described in the memoir this way:
While his prison treatment was harsh, Mr. Bae said it also revealed a softer undercurrent of respect toward foreign citizens by the North Korean authorities, who are concerned about their image abroad. He was never beaten, Mr. Bae said. He was allowed to communicate with family members—his mother was even permitted to see him in the hospital. He still carries the Bible he was allowed to keep during his imprisonment.
Treatment of Americans is in stark contrast to the treatment of North Korean citizens who are imprisoned on political grounds. North Koreans are brutally treated and physically abused, tortured, starved, forced to perform hard labor. Many die from their treatment. The UN Commission of Inquiry on North Korean human rights published detailed information on these abuses, documenting many accounts of public executions, lack of food and medicine, vile conditions in prison camps, and arbitrary imprisonment. At the same time, the elite enjoy a lavish lifestyle.
U.S. citizens are detained in North Korea to give the regime leverage, to provide a hostage that might be used in dealing with the United States. If detainees are harmed, they lose their value, and such action may lead to heightened tensions with the United States, which would be counterproductive for the regime.
What happened to Otto Warmbier was most probably not something that Kim Jong-un ordered or wished to see. Those responsible for his injury in detention may have been severely punished for what they did or what they allowed to occur.
However, Kim Jong-un is responsible for this regime that treats its own citizens with incredible cruelty and brutality. This is also a regime where foreigners, particularly Americans, are arbitrarily arrested and abused because they can be used to barter for concessions from other countries. Kim did not want to see Otto Warmbier returned to his parents after being in a state of unresponsive wakefulness for over a year in North Korea. Nevertheless, under Kim’s brutal regime, such vicious results are all too common.
While President Trump may have told what he believed to be the truth in this case, he has shown little empathy, sympathy, or understanding for others and especially the Warmbier family. This is not an issue that should have been discussed at a press conference with the world media. He should have shared it privately with the family. If he had a sense of decency, he would have expressed to them his dissatisfaction with Kim’s response, and he should have been appalled by the treatment of Otto, even if what he was told by Kim was an accurate response to the very narrow question he asked.
President Trump should have at least requested an expression of regret from Kim for the condition in which Otto Warmbier was returned to the United States. Dictators are not known for making apologies, but it would have been appropriate. As a minimum, the president should have requested that Kim order an investigation and provide an explanation, which the president could pass on to the family.
The president, trumpeting his belief that what Kim told him was true, only served his own interest to reassure the dictator that he was still interested in negotiating with him. This is yet another example of simply using human rights as a tool to pressure or reassure a despot in hopes of making a deal. Little if any thought was given to the anguish and pain of the family.
Officials of the North Korean government at all levels are acutely sensitive and attuned to the guidance and signals that they receive from their leader. Even if Kim Jong-un was speaking the truth about not immediately knowing the details of Warmbier’s critical condition, there is absolutely no question that Kim Jong-un and his regime are fully responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death.
Ambassador Robert R. King is a senior adviser in the Office of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Previously, Ambassador King served as special envoy for North Korean human rights issues at the U.S. Department of State from November 2009 to January 2017.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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