It’s one of the most dramatic foreign policy stories in decades: A young, handsome U.S. college student visits North Korea, is convicted of a laughable charge in a show trial, and later winds up returning to the U.S. in a coma after almost a year and half of imprisonment. Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old from Virginia, has died only days after returning home from the world’s most reclusive totalitarian regime. Convicted of a litany of crimes for allegedly trying to steal a “propaganda poster” at his hotel, Warmbier was sentenced to years of hard labor and disappeared from public view.
The U.S. has no diplomatic ties with North Korea, meaning that Warmbier’s status was unknown during his detention. Sweden operates as America’s representative in the solitary remaining Stalinist-style country and tries to keep tabs on the small handful of U.S. citizens who have been imprisoned there. Following Warmbier’s return home, three other Americans remain held by North Korea. Arresting U.S. citizens to hold as bargaining chips seems to be a regular strategy for North Korea, with potential payoffs including the easing of economic sanctions or increasing offers of aid by the U.S. in order to secure its citizens’ release.
Despite North Korea being an oppressive and brutal regime, a small tourism industry has developed in recent years and curious Westerners seem eager to get a look behind the sole remaining “Iron Curtain.” Westerners, including Americans, can enter North Korea as part of tour groups arriving from China, but are heavily restricted on where they can go and what they can photograph. Even small infractions, such as Warmbier’s alleged theft of the propaganda poster, can result in harsh imprisonment.
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has regularly helped negotiate for the release of Americans held by North Korea, asserts that he met with North Korean diplomats some 20 times during Warmbier’s detention and was never informed of the young man’s deteriorated health. Officially, North Korea has blamed Warmbier’s coma, technically dubbed “unresponsive wakefulness,” also known as a persistent vegetative state, on a combination of botulism poisoning combined with his taking a sleeping pill.
Although it was insinuated by North Korea that Warmbier’s coma was a recent development, evidence suggests that he had been in that state since before April 2016, only a few months after his arrest. Critics have alleged that beatings and harsh mistreatment caused the cardiopulmonary arrest, or loss of blood flow to his brain, that caused Warmbier’s extensive brain damage. The young man’s parents have lashed out at North Korea for their son’s treatment, and the regime in Pyongyang has received universal condemnation for failing to disclose Warmbier’s medical condition for many months.
The big question: What should President Trump do about this dramatic and upsetting situation?
Trump has criticized North Korea for its holding of Warmbier after his medical condition worsened, but praised China on Twitter for “helping with North Korea.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has said that the U.S. will continue to apply “economic and political pressure” on North Korea, but Trump has tweeted that the United States will act unilaterally against the regime of young dictator Kim Jong Un if it must. White House aides appeared frustrated by the President’s mixed messages on his North Korea strategy, and it remains unknown whether the tragic death of Otto Warmbier will prompt him to lash out against the communist state.
After Donald Trump’s foreign policy gaffes in the wake of the Manchester bombing in London, where he spent his time in Europe berating NATO allies for allegedly under-spending on defense, he needs an international win. Seizing the initiative in the wake of Warmbier’s untimely demise could finally give the controversial President some points on the board, which is important given his record-low approval ratings.
The President needs to use this tragedy to show compassion. Having just been criticized by six resigning members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS as uncaring and unconcerned, the former real estate mogul needs to show that he can connect with people. Days ago, Trump showed a bit of compassion by referring to the House of Representative’s health care bill as “mean,” revealing that he wanted to make health care reform less harsh on citizens who could possibly lose health insurance coverage.
With the U.S. Senate appearing to move in the opposite direction of Trump’s “less mean” advice, the President needs to shake things up by giving a powerful speech that brings people together. Frankly, this new administration has been a train wreck from day one. Between the proposed border wall and school vouchers and cutting of Medicaid, it is hard to argue that Trump and his administration have come off as hard-nosed. Even for conservatives, this fiscal austerity can be a tough pill to swallow.
Warmbier’s family deserves compassion and support from the White House, and the nation needs to hear Trump give a formal speech rather than fire off a series of tweets. A formal speech, rather than a tweet, may actually signal to North Korea that Donald Trump is serious. Running foreign policy via Twitter may not be sending the messages Trump wants to send, both abroad and at home.