SEOUL: North Korea has a well-thumbed playbook for detained American citizens who are valuable diplomatic bargaining chips for the regime, but the case of Otto Warmbier, flown home in a coma this week, is a glaring exception.
The script is simple and familiar: arrest an American, hold a show trial ending with a lengthy jail term, release them in exchange for a high-profile visit—Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have both helped free detainees in the past—which is used for domestic propaganda.
“With Otto Warmbier they wanted to play the same game again,” Andrei Lankov, Korearisk.com director and professor at Kookmin University, told Agence France-Presse.
When it works, “it’s a brilliant propaganda coup,” for the regime, he said.
Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from Cincinnati who was in North Korea as a tourist, looked set to follow the usual pattern. He tried to steal a propaganda poster, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor at a show trial.
But then something went wrong.
“If you are always playing games, one day things are going to backfire. This is pretty much what happened in this case,” Lankov said.
Doctors treating Warmbier in the US, where he arrived this week after being released by Pyongyang on “humanitarian grounds”, said that the student is in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness,” having suffered a severe brain injury, most likely due to a cardiopulmonary arrest.
The US doctors could not prove what triggered this but said they had found no signs of a botulism infection—the official explanation given by the North Korean regime for how the young man fell into a coma.
‘A dangerous place’
North Korea, a one-party state that maintains prison camps and has a dire record on human rights, has for decades pursued a nuclear weapons program, despite global condemnation and successive rounds of UN sanctions.
US President Donald Trump has made “solving” the peninsula’s problem a top priority for his administration.
Experts said it was unlikely North Korea would have intentionally put a detained American into a coma.
“It must have been an accident and that’s probably why they were hiding it for a year,” Go Myong-Hyun, researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, told Agence France-Presse.
North Korean escapees have reported that it is common practice to send home prisoners who are very ill, Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) told Agence France-Presse.
“This way, political prison camp and other detention facility officials avoid having to deal with that situation,” he said.