In March, North Korea convicted and imprisoned 21-year-old American tourist Otto Warmbier for alleged crimes against the state. Warmbier is now facing 15 years hard labor, and given the intransigent and reclusive nature of the North Korean government, his future looks bleak. Or does it? It's possible that Otto Warmbier will get help from the U.S., and that will probably his best chance of avoiding 15 years in a labor camp.
Warmbier, whose alleged crime was stealing a poster in a hotel, is far from the first American civilian to be imprisoned by North Korea. Many Americans have been incarcerated by the totalitarian state in the past, usually on spurious charges, and in many of these cases, they were freed after an American official visited the country and negotiated their release.
These American leaders have ranged from the very well-known (Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter) to the completely obscure (Robert King, the U.S. Special Envoy for Human Rights In North Korea), but the general game plan has been the same: They fly to North Korea, huddle with North Korean officials, and after some time, the U.S. prisoner is granted a pardon. It's not unlikely that a similar situation could unfold with Warmbier, too.
It may seem odd that a country would release a foreign prisoner for what seems like such a small cost — a simple visit by an American official — but it makes sense given the propaganda that North Korea feeds its people. The official line from the country's government is that North Korea is a highly respected country on the world stage, in part because its citizens are treated so well. While neither of those claims are even remotely true, visits from powerful Americans to the Hermit Kingdom are a big help in keeping up the ruse.
Unfortunately for regular folks, you probably won't hear about any such visit until after it's happened. Given the hostile relations between the two countries, as well as the fact that they have no formal diplomatic relations, the American government tends to keep these missions secret until they've been successfully carried out, and there's no reason to think Warmbier's situation will be any different.
In 2009, when Bill Clinton posed for photos with then-leader Kim Jong-il in exchange for the release of two imprisoned American journalists, the trip was kept under wraps until his plane landed in North Korea. Five years later, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper went to North Korea to procure the release of Kenneth Bae and Matthew Miller, two more imprisoned Americans, and those negotiations weren't reported until Bae and Miller were freed.
The cavalry may indeed be coming for Warmbier. But if it is, you won't know about it until after it's arrived.