North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier and a fierce response is needed, says a prominent expert on China and North Korea, but he warns the increasingly belligerent actions of the communist regime are a result of the U.S. failing to hold it accountable for more than two decades.
Earlier this month, North Korea released Warmbier after imprisoning him for 16 months. He spent the vast majority of that time in a coma and died just days after returning to Ohio. North Korea claimed Warmbier’s coma stemmed from a bout of botulism and that he was released on humanitarian grounds. U.S. doctors found no evidence of botulism.
“At this point, we have to go with the overwhelming evidence and that is indeed an issue of murder,” said Gordon Chang, a leading scholar on China and North Korea and the author of “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World.”
“There is just no other explanation for a healthy 22-year-old – then a 21-year-old – would end up in a permanent coma and then death. We have to just follow the evidence and just realize that the North Korean explanation is not accurate,” said Chang.
“It may have been guards who got overzealous, but it probably was an order from the top of the regime to send a message to the United States,” said Chang. “It was as horrific as we can think. This is a good reminder when we start to talk about negotiating with the North Koreans of who we are actually dealing with.”
On Friday, the North Korean regime vigorously denied torturing Warmbier, insisting it provided him medical care and then released him on humanitarian grounds.
“Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatments and care with all sincerity on humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S.,” the foreign ministry said, according to state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The North Korean government also claimed it was the biggest victim in this story due to an alleged smear campaign by the U.S. and South Korea to accuse it of torture.
“It’s a typical North Korean response that it’s all the Americans’ response. Any problem in the world can be traced to Washington. This is just the way that they operate. They’re certainly not going to accept any responsibility for the treatment of Otto Warmbier, although they had total custody of him since January 2, 2016,” said Chang.
While the actions of Kim Jong-Un’s regime infuriate the Trump administration, Chang says increased North Korean aggression is simply a result of the U.S. doing virtually nothing in response to provocations for decades.
“We have not imposed costs on North Korea for their brutalized treatment of Americans: the seizure of the (USS) Pueblo in 1968, the shoot down of the Air Force EC-121 with the loss of 31 lives. Again, no penalty was imposed. We never do so, so of course the North Koreans think they can kill us,” said Chang.
“Yes, the North Koreans are villains, but this has become an issue not of North Korea. It’s become an issue of the American response to North Korea, he views of the American policy establishment, the views of American administrations – Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives,” said Chang.
“The north Koreans will continue to act in this way until the United States imposes some costs. So this has become a question of us, not them,” he added.
And what is an effective response?
“Regardless of what they think about North Korea, the Trump administration needs to impose costs on Pyongyang. We need to do that because we cannot allow anyone to kill anyone with impunity,” said Chang.
He believes going after North Korean money would send a crystal clear message.
“I think the most important thing would be to cut North Korea off from the global financial system by cutting North Korea off from Chinese banks, which are participating in illicit North Korean commerce and North Korean crimes,” said Chang.
In addition to providing an appropriate wake-up call to North Korea, Chang believes China would also receive the message loud and clear.
“If were to start to do that, I think that we would start to see a new Chinese attitude, much more positive and much more cooperative. But until we are willing to take political risk and show political will, they’re going to continue with their support of North Korea. They’ve weaponized North Korea against us. We have not responded,” said Chang.
He says demonstrating diplomatic backbone is vital for U.S. national security.
“It’s becoming essential for the United States to show the rest of the world that, first of all, we’re going to enforce our own laws regardless of what we think about China or North Korea policy,” said Chang.
“Second, we need to send a message to the Chinese that for the first time since 1994 that we are serious about protecting the American homeland. We haven’t done that, and because of that Beijing and Pyongyang haven’t taken us seriously,” he said.
President Trump has said the approach of previous administrations toward North Korea does not work, but he has yet to lay out a new policy. In the meantime, Chang says we’re still getting pushed around.
“So far they’ve adopted the policy of their predecessors and they’re, again, getting no results from the Chinese. I don’t know if the president has genuinely been taken in by Beijing or whether he’s just giving them enough rope and he’s decided he’s eventually going to do something on his own,” said Chang.