June 20, 2017 | Policy Brief

Pyongyang’s Murder of U.S. Student Shows Negotiating is Pointless

June 20, 2017 | Policy Brief

Pyongyang’s Murder of U.S. Student Shows Negotiating is Pointless

The death of American student Otto Warmbier was nothing less than a callous murder at the hands of North Korea’s Stalinist dictatorship. This crime should serve as a potent reminder that there is no prospect of meaningful negotiations with a regime that shows such contempt for American life and that of its own citizens.

While Americans mourn Warmbier, they should not forget that three other U.S. citizens are still being held hostage in North Korea, two of them imprisoned earlier this year. Instead of recognizing such behavior as a sign of unremitting hostility, one advocate of engagement suggested that if North Korea releases the remaining Americans, it “could set up an atmosphere for potentially serious talks.” Such views reflect the uncritical embrace of dialogue rather than pressure as means of achieving progress. Earlier this year, a pro-engagement scholar argued that the United States should help North Korea become “the next Asian tiger” because Pyongyang will only make concessions on the nuclear front once it is prosperous and secure.

Senior American envoys have also bought into the illusion that engagement could yield results, regardless of how clearly the regime advertised its hostility. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Bill Richardson, the former U.S. ambassador to the UN, met about 20 times with North Korean diplomats in New York last year. The North Koreans’ favorite spot for meetings was The Palm steakhouse. Richardson and others fail to understand that Pyongyang is glad to string along American partners, encouraging them to advocate for deeper engagement rather than additional pressure.

Ultimately, the U.S. should not be surprised that Kim killed an American – the real surprise is that it took this long. The North Korean regime has perfected torture on its own people. When the UN detailed these abuses in a ground-breaking report in 2014, the world collectively shrugged. Even the United States – the “city on a hill” – waited two years to act against North Korean human rights abusers, an inexcusable dereliction of leadership.

The UN report noted that Kim’s thugs carry out forced abortions, and any baby that survives is drowned or suffocated in front of the mother; immerse prisoners in a tank until they almost drown, hang people upside down, force needles under fingernails, and pour a water/hot chili pepper concoction down the victim’s nose; and use starvation as an element of statecraft to keep innocent civilians fearful of the state. At some level, it was naïve to hope that North Korea would not subject Americans to life-threatening abuses.

When dealing with North Korea, it is also essential to recall that China plays a central role in excusing the regime’s behavior, just as it excuses North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs. In particular, Beijing allows despicable groups, such as Young Pioneer Tours, to operate on its soil, selling trips to Pyongyang to young people like Warmbier while assuring them that visits to North Korea are “extremely safe.” More concerning is Beijing’s refusal to allow the Security Council to refer North Korea to the International Criminal Court or a new international tribunal. No one should forget that Chinese President Xi Jinping has the blood not only of Otto Warmbier, but every dead and imprisoned North Korean on his hands.

The Kim regime has presented a lot of defining moments over the years, and each time, our outrage returns to acceptance of the status quo. This time should be different as we realize that the thug in Pyongyang is not going to wake up one morning and become a negotiating partner with a serious interest in peace or denuclearization. Instead, our focus should be freeing the North Korean people from this tyrant by exerting maximum pressure through sanctions and others means short of war.

Anthony Ruggiero, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was the non-proliferation advisor to the U.S. delegation to the 2005 rounds of the Six-Party Talks and spent more than 17 years in the U.S. government. Follow him on Twitter @_ARuggiero. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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