Can Otto Warmbier Be Rescued? North Korea Won't Release The Imprisoned American Student For Nothing
American student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea for allegedly stealing a poster from a hotel room. As veteran diplomat Bill Richardson attempts to negotiate a deal with the North Koreans, one question is on everyone's mind: Can Otto Warmbier be rescued? Well, this depends on how you define "rescued."
If rescuing means that an elite military team parachutes into the country, stealthily takes out North Korean prison guards, snatches Warmbier, and airlifts him out of there before anyone's the wiser, then no, he can't be rescued, because the proven method of procuring the release of Americans held hostage in North Korea seems to be getting a high-profile, respected American politician to travel to the country in an attempt to negotiate their release.
That's exactly what happened in 2009 after Laura Ling and Euna Lee, two American journalists, were sentenced to 12 years hard labor for illegally entering the country from China. After five months' imprisonment, Ling and Lee were released after Bill Clinton made a visit to the DPRK. Clinton met with North Korean officials and took a photo with then-dictator Kim Jong-il, and apparently, this was enough to convince the country's leadership to free Ling and Lee.
A similar situation played out more recently with Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller. Bae, a Korean-American Christian missionary, was imprisoned in November 2012 for alleged proselytizing, while Miller reportedly attempted to gain asylum in North Korea for reasons that remain mysterious. Both of them were released in November 2014 after National Intelligence Director James Clapper paid a visit to the country.
This technique — deploying a high-level current or former American official to North Korea to free an American prisoner — works in part because it helps North Korea with its own domestic propaganda. According to the story the DPRK tells its people, North Korea is among the most highly-respected nations in the world, and America one of the least. That's patent nonsense, of course — North Korea is actually one of the most hated countries on the planet — but it's part of the national myth, and its state-run media is full of stories about world leaders paying respects on Kim Jong-Il's birthday, or American warmongers being denounced by other countries, and so on.
Through that lens, it makes perfect sense that North Korea would place a high value on visits from American diplomats, because these visits reinforce North Korea's international stature in the eyes of its citizens. It's no accident that the country forced Bill Clinton to take a picture with Kim Jong-Il before releasing Ling and Lee. An image like that reinforces the idea that North Korea commands the respect of the world, because why else would a former American president make such a long trip?
Currently, former U.S. ambassador Bill Richardson is attempting to negotiate Warmbier's release. But Richardson is a somewhat low-profile politician, and in exchange for freeing Warmbier, North Korean officials may demand the presence of a more visible politician. Who that politician might be is anyone's guess.