There are days of jubilation, kumbayas, and Nobel Peace prizes already seemingly awarded on the Korean Peninsula in anticipation of a historic agreement that will result in the complete dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. But North Korea being North Korea, these days are eclipsed by other days when the North’s proclamations tend to revert to threats and intransigence.
But for the past 25 years, the can has been kicked down the road to the point where it can’t be kicked any further. The North Koreans have only accelerated their nuclear program over the years as the best efforts by the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations did little to impede its progress. Now the North Korean nuclear threat not only impacts out allies Japan and South Korea, but has grown to the point where its ICBM’s can strike anywhere in the continental U.S. All that remains is the North’s ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead.
Maybe a summit happens, maybe it doesn’t. Though some have referred to Kim Jong Un as being irrational, he is quite the rational actor. He will do whatever he has to do to remain in power. If that means shooting off rockets and threatening the world that’s what he will do. If having a summit focused on denuclearization is his best option for staying in power, he will do just that. What Kim Jong Un fears most of all is regime change. After all it didn’t work out so well for Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. And it is still in the best interest of the U.S. to reach a diplomatic solution. Military options have been contemplated as far back as the Clinton administration centered on taking out North Korea’s nuclear facilities. The reason it wasn’t carried out then holds true today. It risks a wider war on the peninsula and beyond which could result
in radioactive fallout, massive casualties, a humanitarian crisis, and probable intervention by China.
So, let’s be optimistic and hope that a summit will in fact take place. Of course, in negotiating with Kim Jong Un, the U.S. will have to ignore serious human rights abuses by this regime. But we have often had to deal with unsavory characters in pursuit of peace or some other broader goal or objective. Here we are basically putting peace before principles. In fact, William Perry who was Defense Secretary in the Clinton administration admitted as much in stating that while the U.S. finds the treatment of North Korea’s people abhorrent, it doesn’t plan to go to war to change it.
And while I’m in general agreement with such sentiments, I would make one small plea. I would encourage the Kim regime to provide a full accounting of what happened to American college student Otto Warmbier during his captivity there. Warmbier who was from Ohio and a student at the University of Virginia travelled to North Korea via China in January 2016. He was part of a larger tour group put together by a company specializing in such trips. Though the State Department at the time strongly discouraged such trips, it was not that uncommon to find students like Warmbier trying to broaden their knowledge and interactions with a population that few get to encounter even under strict conditions. And the North Korean regime gladly accepts such tourists because they need the hard currency these visitors provide. But by the end of January, Warmbier witnessed the sinister nature of the regime
firsthand. He was arrested at the Pyongyang hotel he was staying at for the grand crime of attempting to steal a propaganda poster. And for this “crime”, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Supposedly, the only evidence was a grainy black and white surveillance video. And yes, we must realize the U.S. Constitution doesn’t follow us to other countries, but basic international norms that protect human rights should – but not in North Korea. After all, Kim Jong Un has had a hand in poisoning his own brother and had an uncle shot for “treasonous acts”. And things would only get worse for young Mr. Warmbier. A healthy, very bright, inquisitive young man with the brightest of futures ahead of him fell into a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”, the euphemistic term for braindead, at some point during his captivity. After 517 days of captivity, Warmbier was released from
detention and travelled back in a catatonic state to his home in Ohio. He died a few days later. Was he tortured? Was he malnourished? Was he the subject of some grotesque medical experiment? We simply don’t know, and no plausible explanation was ever given for Warmbier’s demise. But before a summit ensues, Fred and Cindy Warmbier should have the opportunity to find out what really happened to their son. If he were my son, I would desire the same opportunity to find closure and pray that it never happens to anyone else’s child.