The death of an American tourist just days after he was released from North Korean custody and repatriated to his home in Ohio has cast another long shadow over relations between Pyongyang and Washington. 22-year-old Otto Warmbier was in a coma when he departed the North Korean capital last week, and had apparently been in that condition for over a year. He appears to have been released and sent home only in order that he might die with his family around him, rather than in the unbending isolation of distant Pyongyang.
It is unclear how Warmbier ended up in a coma, and the entirely reasonable decision of his family to refuse an autopsy means that we probably never will. From a humanitarian standpoint it is of no consequence. Warmbier died at the hands of the North Korean government, and that is all we need to know. He was not sentenced to death at his Pyongyang show trial in 2016, he received a sentence of fifteen years’ hard labour, nominally for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel on a New Year’s group tour. Yet he ended up dead all the same. There is no acceptable excuse for this. The fact that Warmbier did not actually die until after he got home to Ohio is spurious, useful only for permitting the North Korean authorities to keep his demise out of official statistics.
However, the question of what happened and who was responsible for it matters for other reasons. It is highly unlikely that the North Korean government had a strategic plan that included the death of Otto Warmbier. It is therefore helpful to understand the institutional dynamics that resulted in the tragedy, since these may afford international actors greater leverage in future attempts to negotiate with the North Korean government.
The removal of Kim Won-hong from his post as head of the Ministry of State Security in February this year potentially may be relevant here. The Ministry of State Security is the institution that punishes North Korea’s extremely long list of nominally “political” crimes. It manages the country’s notorious network of political prison camps, generating the sense of pervasive fear that buttresses the regime’s power.
Extraordinarily, a South Korean legislative committee revealed at the time of Kim’s removal intelligence that said he had been censured by the ruling party for human rights violations. This would ordinarily be an implausible rationale for removing the head of arguably the single most brutal institution in all of North Korea. Without human rights violations, the Ministry of State Security would cease to function. Unless, that is, the punishment of Kim was designed to send a message to third parties.
The Warmbier tragedy is reminiscent of the summer of 2008. Early one morning in July that year, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist, 53-year-old housewife Park Wang-ja, who had stepped outside the permitted bounds of the Mt. Kumgang resort in the North Korean half of Kangwon province. Facing an untenable security situation, newly inaugurated South Korean President Lee Myung-bak immediately halted all inter-Korean tourist projects.
Then, as now, the actions of a member or members of the North Korean security services were utterly unacceptable. Yet, although a public apology for that incident was repeatedly demanded by the South Korean authorities, it was not forthcoming. Instead, more than a year later, then-leader Kim Jong-il only went so far as to promise Hyun Jeong-eun, the chair of the Hyundai Group, that the incident would not be repeated and that measures would be taken to ensure this. His words were deemed entirely inadequate by the South Korean people, horrified at the killing of Park for something as seemingly trivial as walking on the wrong side of a line.
This time, the North Korean government must make the right choice. If it was not Pyongyang’s intent to send Warmbier home in a coma, then a senior official in the North Korean regime should apologise for the actions of the state security service. This can be done through one of several existing channels for U.S.-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) communication, for example North Korea’s office at the UN in New York.
This is not as implausible as it at first appears. In recent years, the North Korean government has occasionally shown itself capable of public displays of honesty, and even something akin to remorse. When a missile launch failed on 13 April 2012, the failure was reported in a comparatively accurate and timely manner. When an apartment building collapsed in Pyongyang in 2014, the head of the Ministry of People’s Security, North Korea’s police, Choe Pu-il went before the public to apologise for its incompetence. His symbolic contrition was reported by the daily publication of the ruling party, Rodong Sinmun.
An apology for Otto Warmbier’s death is more than the right and proper thing for the North Korean government to do. It could have additional positive effects. An apology from the top of the ruling party would help signal a desire to limit the political dominance of the Ministry of State Security within the North Korean institutional structure, the core of which also includes the Party Organisation and Guidance and Propaganda and Agitation departments. This is an appropriate step at a time when there is the latent possibility of a dialogue emerging in the coming months between South Korea and elements in the North Korean government who may be predisposed to a flexible approach to the outside world.
If Kim Jong-un and the senior elites who run the DPRK regime through its core institutions are at all interested in changing the framework of relations and conflict-prone dynamics of North East Asia, they know what must be done.
Christopher Green, Senior Advisor, Korean Peninsula.