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Remembering Otto Warmbier’s death, Trump renews pressure on North Korea  

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Is President Donald Trump dusting off his most potent weapon in what was his “maximum pressure” campaign to denuclearize North Korea?

That would be the issue of Pyongyang’s criminal human rights record and the case it makes for regime change.

The other two elements of the multi-faceted pressure campaign have either been dropped or significantly eroded. The credible presidential rhetoric threatening the use of force against the Kim Jong Un regime — “fire and fury,” “bloody nose” and “the complete destruction of North Korea” — ended with the blossoming of the Trump-Kim “love affair.”

While the tough economic and financial sanctions technically remain in place, they have been significantly undermined, primarily by China, Kim’s only formal ally, but also by Russia, Iran and other enemies of the United States. Trump even noted Beijing’s role at his press conference in Hanoi but said it was “OK” because he felt Chinese President Xi Jinping has otherwise been “helpful” on North Korea. In that same generous spirit, the administration has so far chosen not to ramp up the pressure by imposing sanctions on Chinese banks helping to sustain the Kim regime.

As for the third pillar in what had initially been an effective three-part pressure strategy — focusing on the Pyongyang ruling clique’s unfitness to govern the North Korean people — that also has been negated by the personal rapport between the dictator and the American president.

In speeches before the United Nations, the South Korean National Assembly and in his 2017 State of the Union (SOTU) address, Trump had used the harshest language to expose the Kim regime’s atrocities against its long-suffering population. He told the General Assembly that “the depraved regime in North Korea is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.”

He even featured a crippled but defiant North Korean defector at his SOTU speech and, soon thereafter, met publicly with a large group of other victims in the Oval Office.

Finally, the president showed that the Kim regime’s cruelty extends beyond its own people to its treatment of a U.S. citizen. He marshaled his administration’s diplomatic resources and his own personal energies to secure the release of Otto Warmbier, the American student held by Pyongyang for 17 months for trying to filch a propaganda poster as a North Korean souvenir.

Tragically, Warmbier was released in June 2017 only after he had been repeatedly beaten and tortured until falling into a coma; he died shortly after being sent home. 

Trump cited “the regime’s deadly abuse of an innocent American college student” in his U.N. speech.

Yet, last February, the president dramatically shifted his position on Kim’s responsibility for Warmbier’s mistreatment and death. Asked about the case after his failed Hanoi summit with Kim, Trump stated that the North Korean leader felt “badly” about what had happened to Warmbier and then went on to absolve Kim of responsibility: “I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen. He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”

The Warmbier family was not so accepting of that explanation and expressed shock at the president’s statement: “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.”

Nothing more had been heard about the case from the White House in the ensuing six months — until now.

The White House announced last week that the president would host the Warmbier family for a Saturday evening dinner to honor Otto’s memory. In case the media failed to take proper notice, Trump used his joint press conference with Australia’s prime minister days later to announce that he and the first lady had hosted the “beautiful Warmbier family.” He recalled how “horribly” Otto had been treated.

The president described the get-together as “very touching,” and it was clearly a personal, human gesture to express the president’s sympathy for the family’s terrible loss. But Trump’s decision to highlight it in a high-visibility public setting may have been something more. 

The president could well have been telling Kim that America has not forgotten or forgiven the outrageous treatment and murder of one of its young sons — or the nature of the regime that carried out such a heinous act. His expiation of Kim, for which he took political heat from the Warmbier family and the media, has not brought North Korean reciprocity.

Trump may well be hinting at a potential return to the broader focus on North Korea’s despicable treatment of its own people, not least including the millions held in concentration camps — in many ways similar to the camps its Chinese mentors use to eliminate Uighurs and expunge their culture.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), which helped arrange the 2017 White House meeting with North Korean defectors, this past week released its latest in a series of authoritative reports laying out the inner workings of the Kim regime’s system of oppression. HRNK’s work, and that of the United Nations human rights committee, have effectively made the case for regime change in North Korea in one form or another.

If the president does intend to revive and enlarge the moral indictment of the Kim regime, it would be an adroit asymmetrical response to Pyongyang’s test-firing of a half-dozen missiles in recent months, which some analysts have seen as a slap at Trump’s charm offensive. 

Since love letters have not convinced Kim to get down to serious denuclearization, a reinvigorated U.S. program of non-kinetic support for regime change in Pyongyang may prove more effective.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense, 2005-2006, and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, 2009-2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute. 

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong Un North Korea North Korea–United States relations Otto Warmbier

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