It was supposed to be sassy, hinting at danger while assuring security. Though the promise of Young Pioneer Tours to offer “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from” today appears crass in the extreme.
The death on Monday of Otto Warmbier, who was detained in Pyongyang 17 months ago while on a group tour organized by Young Pioneer, has once again laid bare the dangers of voluntarily relinquishing your liberty — even temporarily — to a tyrannical regime with no diplomatic ties to Washington. And it has augmented existing calls for a blanket travel ban on U.S. citizens visiting the regime of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, which still has three Americans — Kim Dong-chul, Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-song — in detention.
“Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency,” said President Donald Trump in a statement. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Warmbier, 22, had been serving a 15-year prison sentence with hard labor following his arrest on Jan. 2, 2016, for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang — deemed "a hostile act." North Korean officials said he fell into a coma soon after his conviction upon being given a sleeping pill after contracting botulism, a potentially fatal bacterial illness. He was finally returned to the U.S. last week; however, American doctors said he suffered "severe injury to all regions of the brain." Warmbier’s family said in a statement Monday that his condition was due to “awful torturous mistreatment” during detention.
“There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top notch medical care for so long,” Warmbier’s father, Fred, told a press conference.
Warmbier’s treatment and death has served as a wake-up call to both those who join and organize tours to North Korea. In an emotional statement, Young Pioneers Tours said: “The way his detention was handled was appalling, and a tragedy like this must never be repeated … Considering these facts and this tragic outcome we will no longer be organizing tours for U.S. citizens to North Korea.” Uri Tours, a U.S.-based tour company also offering trips to North Korea, said it was “reviewing its position on [North Korea] travel for American citizens.”
They may not have a choice. Although the State Department already warns in strong terms against North Korean travel, last month Republican and Democratic U.S. congressmen introduced a bill that would ban American tourists from traveling to North Korea as tourists and require special permission for other visits, citing at least 17 Americans detained by the regime over the last decade. “With increased tensions in North Korea, the danger that Americans will be detained for political reasons is greater than ever,” Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Joe Wilson said in a statement.
Since taking office, Trump has turned the screws on the Kim regime, persuading China — the source of nearly all North Korean trade — to cut off revenue and in April dispatching the Carl Vinson U.S. Navy strike group to the Korean peninsular in a show of force. Trump has warned of a “major, major conflict” with North Korea should it continue its nuclear program. The regime has conducted five nuclear tests to date and 16 missile tests this year alone.
Amid the heightening tensions, there was clearly a political aspect to Otto’s continued detention, as the regime has previously managed to wrangle visits from top U.S. figures — most recently former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — to secure the release of Americans detained. The Obama administration’s tactic of “strategic patience” — refusing to engage with the regime while squeezing it financially through sanctions — has by and large been kept in place by Trump, despite his administration's declaration that it would break with the policy. This meant no diplomatic thawing was on the cards for Warmbier; that is, until diplomats finally learned about his failing health.
Speaking to journalists upon his son’s return, Fred Warmbier thanked the Trump administration and laid blame on the Obama White House for not doing enough to secure his son’s freedom.
“Earlier this year Cindy and I decided the time for ‘strategic patience’ was over,” he said, praising new State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun, who traveled to Pyongyang June 12 to secure Warmbier’s release, for his “aggressively pursued resolution of the situation.” Asked whether the Obama administration could have done more, Fred Warmbier replied, “I think the results speak for themselves.”
The fact remains that Warmbier may still be alive today if, as may now happen, Americans had been prohibited from traveling to North Korea. But it is also true that stronger diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang would have aided in securing an earlier release.
“It’s just very sad,” says Prof. Stephan Haggard, a Korea expert at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy. “One channel is to shut down the tourism. But I’m not sure it will have much effect in terms of the larger strategy.”
Other than implementing a travel ban, which would close off a not insignificant income stream for Pyongyang, it’s unclear what more the U.S. could do to gain some sense of justice for the Warmbier family. North Korea is already one the world’s most heavily sanctioned countries, and any new economic measures would be symbolic rather than substantive. A more fitting tribute would be to secure the release of the three other Americans held by the regime before a similar tragedy befalls them, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded in a statement Monday.
Washington could impose secondary sanctions on individuals and companies organizing tours to North Korea, many of which are based in China, the U.K. and U.S., though that would be a legal minefield. Such a move would also contradict recent developments indicating a move toward engagement with the North, especially after last month's election of liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
“What can the U.S. and its allies do after Otto’s death?” asked one top Korea-watcher, who requested anonymity out of respect for the Warmbier family. “The brutal reality is nothing.”