Global Independent Analytics
James George Jatras
James George Jatras

Location: USA

Specialization: Media and government relations

U.S. Response to Imprisonment of American Student Highlights Flaws in Korea Policy

Korea and China should be cautious while playing with the US: after all, they will have to deal with a new President

A leading piece on the nightly news in the United States last week was the sentence of 15 years’ hard labor meted out to the student of the University of Virginia Otto Warmbier, from Wyoming, Ohio, for "perpetrating a hostile act" in Pyongyang while traveling with a tour group in January. His “crime” is as follows:  he ripped down a propaganda poster to take home as a souvenir.

Media have shown video appearing to demonstrate Warmbier pulling down the poster. Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a top Democrat with extensive experience with Korea, is trying to negotiate his release. Human Rights Watch has called the student’s action a mere college-aged “prank.” It seems the North Koreans were not amused.

We have seen this movie before. In the past two decades, a dozen Americans have been arrested by North Korea officials and accused of various crimes. All were later released, except businessman Kim Dong Chul, who was arrested in October 2015 and charged with espionage, and now Warmbier.

Warmbier’s sentencing comes at a time of heightened tensions over a series of North Korean ballistic missile test launches. (The PDRK tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006.)  In response to the missile tests, the UN Security Council (UNSC) unanimously approved one of the toughest sets of sanctions ever targeting North Korea. The restrictions include the mandatory inspections of cargo leaving and entering the communist state by land, sea or air, and bans all sales or transfers of small arms and light weapons to Pyongyang.

However, on top of the UNSC sanctions (in which China and Russia concurred), President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order imposing additional, unilateral US sanctions aimed primarily at business activities and investment. This action, while largely symbolic (US-PDRK trade is minuscule), drew the ire of China because of its unilateral nature. 

North Korea is heavily dependent on China for food and fuel. Observers have suggested that should China cut these off, the PDRK would collapse within weeks. Thus, China is key. Without cooperation with Beijing, it’s hard to see how much more pressure the US can impose unilaterally.

Nonetheless, it seems that Washington (whether under a Democrat or Republican administration) has only two items in its toolkit when it comes to North Korea: sanctions and military responses (like joint military exercises with South Korean and Japanese forces and deployment of anti-ballistic missiles in South Korea). Leading American political figures in both parties call for more “pressure” on Beijing to rein in Pyongyang.

To take this tack with a country that has nuclear weapons seems to me as a bad idea. It evidently doesn’t occur to anyone in the Obama Administration that the PDRK needs to stop being “our” American problem and should be the regional concern primarily of China, Russia, Japan, and (of course) South Korea, with the US playing a secondary and supportive role. In particular, the more Washington ratchets up sanctions and threats against Pyongyang, the more Beijing knuckles down and props North Korea up.

Why? Because in the event of a North Korean collapse (presumably the intended goal of sanctions, though that never seems to work, cf., Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Russia) a reunification of the peninsula under a Seoul government allied with the US means, for China, the prospect of American troops on the Yalu.  (In other words, a virtual replay of NATO’s expansion after the Warsaw Pact disbanded and the USSR collapsed.) Beijing will never permit that to occur. No matter how distasteful they find the North Korean regime, the Chinese will ensure its survival as long as they see the alternative is U.S. forces on their border.

Over sixty years after the end of the Korean War, and a quarter century after the end of the global Soviet-American rivalry, keeping 29,000 Americans as an expendable “tripwire” on the Korean DMZ is senseless. If American policymakers ever learn to think strategically (a very big “if”) they might consider giving Beijing (which by the way generally has good relations with Seoul) an incentive to help find a “soft landing” to the DPRK predicament rather than provide every reason to maintain it indefinitely. A good start it would be for the next US President (who I hope will be Donald Trump, whom I have personally endorsed, not crazed warmonger Hillary Clinton) to tell the South Koreans that with twice the North’s population and 40 times its GDP, it’s time for them to take over their own defense entirely and bid the Yanks a fond farewell.

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