Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student sentenced to hard labor for 15 years in North Korea turned 22 this month, and the ongoing captivity seems to underscore that this young man has become a pawn in some sort of U.S.-North Korean political game, despite denials from the North Koreans and their counter claims that the U.S. government was using Warmbier to bring down the “single-minded unity” of North Korea.
If this ongoing drama continues on past January 20, 2017, of course, Donald Trump will be left to fix matters with North Korea, while also trying to heal escalating tensions throughout the Middle East.
For nine long months, President Barack Obama has been urging North Korea to just let young Warmbier go home. A YouTube video from ABC News shows official White House reaction to the Otto Warmbier arrest, conviction, and sentencing to 15 years hard labor,via Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
From the official White House supplied transcript, Obama’s press secretary was asked for a reaction about American student Otto Warmbier’s conviction and his sentencing for allegedly taking down a propaganda poster/banner.
“Now, despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in North Korea are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear that the North Korean government seeks to use these U.S. citizens as pawns to pursue a political agenda.”
Prior to this statement, Earnest announced that “there is no greater priority for this administration than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad.”
The Otto Warmbier update would not be complete without more information on why the UVA student decided to visit North Korea in the first place. Reading through the advertisement posted online at the Young Pioneer Tours, formed in 2008 and based in China, and finding the fact that they cater to “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,” the economic and financial student likely wanted to do something excitingly different and visit Pyongyang and the DMZ.
They do claim that they “are renowned and rated as one of the best North Korea travel operators with our unparalleled experience.”
As the website Inverse reports, Warmbier was visiting North Korea on a five-day vacation, in what they describe as a “New Year’s Party Tour.” The North Koreans arrested the UVA student on January 2, 2016, in Pyongyang “right before he was about to board a plane to leave the nation.”
According to the article online, the North Koreans believed Otto Warmbier was “perpetrating a hostile act” against them, and they did not believe, it seems from the details in this article, that Warmbier was really just an American student touring the country.
A press conference apparently was arranged by the North Korean government in February for Warmbier, according to Inverse. The UVA student read from a prepared statement then.
“On the morning of December 30, 2015, I asked my U.K. tour guide where they keep the important slogans in the Yanggakdo International Hotel. She said they were in staff-only areas. That night I alone walked around the second floor lobby.”
But when Otto Warmbier read another statement, it certainly seems he was being used by the North Koreans as a pawn in the strange political game with the United States.
“After this press conference my family will come to know about my current situation. I am very worried that they can be harmed. I was manipulated by the United States administration. I am worried that they were threatened or harmed by the government. I beg for any kind of public protection for my family. One final time, I beg for forgiveness.”
Curiously enough, it seems remarks made in 2015 by President Barack Obama and cited in a story from Jenna Gibson of The Diplomat, indicate there may be an ongoing effort under the Obama Administration to undermine the repressive North Korean regime with information.
“It’s very hard to sustain that kind of brutal authoritarian regime in this modern world. Information ends up seeping in over time and bringing about change. That’s something that we are constantly looking for ways to accelerate,” President Obama said in an interview in January, 2015.
Per the Diplomat story, “the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor announced they would be accepting proposals for ‘programs that support the policy objective to promote human rights, increase accountability, and foster the free flow of information into, out of, and within the DPRK.'”
North Korea perhaps has been a foreign policy headache for President Obama and his slow-paced strategy of “seeping” change, but it will likely fall to his successor Donald Trump to resolve if Obama does nothing more.
The UVA student’s North Korean imprisonment continues, and he will mark one full year of captivity on January 2, 2017.
[Featured Image by Mark Wilson, pool/AP Images]