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Dennis P. Halpin
Dennis P. Halpin, a former Foreign Service Officer and senior Congressional staff, is a consultant on Asian issues.
The disturbing news that an American citizen was held for over a year in a coma, without receiving adequate medical attention and with no access to consular visits or communication with his family, is shocking even by the draconian standards of North Korea.
The University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier was released for what Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) has declared were “humanitarian reasons” and medevacked home on June 13.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement upon their son’s release.
Pyongyang reportedly claimed that the student fell into a coma, caused by “botulism” and “a sleeping pill,” in March 2016, according to a report carried by CNN. The University of Cincinnati Medical Center announced, after the student’s admission, that he was in stable condition but had suffered a “severe neurological injury” while in the DPRK. Medical experts are expressing concerns that he may not make a full recovery.
The lapse into a coma reportedly occurred one day after a political show trial where Warmbier, forced to bow before the court, was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor for taking a propaganda poster from a hotel wall as a souvenir.
Warmbier’s so-called “crime,” which Pyongyang dubbed “anti-state acts,” is eerily similar to the actions of Olympian and WWII POW hero Louis Zamperini. Zamperini recorded in his “Unbroken” memoir how, during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, he pulled down a Nazi flag from the Reich Chancellery as a souvenir and was then chased by two gun-wielding Gestapo guards. The Nazis, however, recognizing a youthful prank, let Zamperini go, unlike the North Koreans and Warmbier.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime”
Reports indicate that for the fifteen months from the time of the trial until his release, Otto Warmbier was not allowed consular visits by the Swedish Embassy, which functions as a Protective Power for the United States, as it does not have diplomatic representation in the North.
Swedish diplomats, as a result, were not aware of Otto Warmbier’s “deteriorating health condition,” which was only reportedly revealed to State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun in a June 6 meeting in New York with North Korean UN Mission Ambassador Pak Kil-yon. Yun subsequently traveled to Pyongyang with a medical team, upon instructions from Secretary of State Tillerson, to secure Otto Warmbier’s release.
The 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, to which the DPRK (North Korea) acceded on August 8, 1984, contains Article 36 which addresses consular access to imprisoned citizens. (In the case of Americans detained in North Korea, Sweden, as noted, is the Protective Power.)
Section c of Article 36 states: “consular officers shall have the right to visit a national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention, to converse and correspond with him and to arrange for his legal representation. They shall also have the right to visit any national of the sending State who is in prison, custody or detention in their district in pursuance of a judgement.”
Thus, unless Otto Warmbier specifically gave instructions that he did not wish to be visited by representatives of the Swedish Embassy, North Korea was in clear violation of an international agreement to which it was a signatory.
A DANGER TO AMERICANS
This provides clear evidence that North Korea is a “pariah regime”: in brutalizing and holding Warmbier incognito for over a year, Pyongyang has crossed a red line that separates it from the community of civilized nations.
North Korea was in clear violation of an international agreement to which it was a signatory
The United States has, from its earliest days, assumed a special role as a guarantor of the security of its citizens imperiled overseas. Thomas Jefferson, in the early days of the Republic, confronting the issue of American seamen being captured, enslaved and held for ransom by the Barbary pirates, wrote to John Adams “I very early thought it would be best to effect a peace thro’ the medium of war.”
During his subsequent presidency, Jefferson waged the Barbary War between 1801 and 1805 to bring about a cessation to this brutalization of American citizens. The Marine hymn “to the shores of Tripoli” is a reflection of this early conflict, which grew out of American citizen protection.
Pyongyang stands out – perhaps being only exceeded by the Islamic State – in the cavalier and rough manner with which it treats Americans with apparent impunity.
Evan Hunziker, the first American citizen arrested on spying charges in 1996, was released through the intervention of then U.S.-Representative Bill Richardson. He committed suicide a month later, although the cause of his death may not be linked to his captivity.
Journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling were arrested in March 2009 on the Chinese-North Korean border and sentenced to 12 years at hard labor for entering with “hostile intent.”
Laura Ling later appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she described being initially held in a five-by-six foot cell where “you couldn’t see out.” She said she was “petrified” and that, once she heard the 12-year sentence, “I could barely stand up straight.” It took a visit by former President Bill Clinton to secure the journalists’ release.
Christian human rights activist Robert Park, who was arrested in North Korea later in 2009, told the Washington Post in February 2011, a year after his captivity, that he was still trying to recover his mental health, something “he says he lost in North Korea.”
Rewarding North Korea for bad behavior has only apparently increased its appetite for American captives
Park further noted that he was “tortured and sexually abused by his captors,” calling his treatment “humiliating” and “worse than death.” Another U.S. detainee, Aijalon Mahli Gomes, arrested in January 2010, secured his release through a visit to Pyongyang by former President Jimmy Carter. The Daily Mail reported that his family described his captivity as “a long, dark and difficult period.”
A PATTERN OF ABUSE
A total of 17 American citizens, including an elderly veteran of the Korean War, have been detained in North Korea in the past 21 years, with 15 of those arrests occurring in the past eight years.
Pyongyang has apparently concluded that taking Americans as hostages provides bargaining chips for winning diplomatic concessions, including visits by former U.S. presidents. The late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, for example, was apparently dismayed that his negotiations in late 2000 with then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright never secured a coveted meeting with Bill Clinton.
As North Korean leaders are not used to not getting what they want, Kim then used the imprisonment of Laura Ling and Euna Lee to get former President Clinton to finally come to Pyongyang. Rewarding North Korea for bad behavior has only apparently increased its appetite for American captives.
That is not to advocate a military raid or strike to secure the release of the three U.S. citizens remaining imprisoned in North Korea – Kim Dong Chul, Kim Sang-duk (Tony Kim), and Kim Hak-Song. However, the vigorous response of Secretary Rex Tillerson and Ambassador Joseph Yun to obtain the release of Otto Warmbier brought about an expeditious resolution, as well as showing that even Pyongyang is not immune to the spotlight of adverse international publicity and pressure.
While the issues of North Korea’s nuclear brinksmanship and atrocious human rights violations directed against its own people are the main stories in the 24-hour news cycle, the Americans left behind bars in the brutal North Korean gulag should not be forgotten.
The American motto of “leave no one behind” should not be neglected in the flurry over nuclear and missile tests. The other three U.S. citizens need to come home.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons, NK News edit