There shouldn’t have been any debate about this. Twenty-two-year-old American Otto Warmbier was murdered by North Korea. He went to North Korea as a tourist last January. He was young, healthy and lively. The North Korean regime accused him of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel. Thus, Otto was arrested. After a staged public confession, he was sentenced to 15 years of prison with hard labor. About 16 months later, he came back to the U.S. in a coma and passed away shortly after.
North Korea still holds three Americans, one Canadian, and six South Koreans as political hostages. Let’s also not forget that many North Korean citizens have languished in prisons and labor camps under this repressive and brutal regime.
President Trump often talks about curtailing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, while saying little about the regime’s human rights abuses. What happened to Otto Warmbier should be a wake-up call to President Trump: North Korea’s human rights abuse is closely linked to its nuclear ambitions.
The North Korean regime pursues its nuclear weapon development at enormous cost to the wellbeing of its people. It uses its weapon and large military not only to intimidate its neighbors, but also to suppress domestic dissent and keep its people under tight control. A regime who cares so little for its own citizens’ welfare won’t give a damn about citizens from other countries, and won’t hesitate to deploy weapons of mass destruction to induce maximum harm on humanity.
Thus, Otto Warmbier’s tragic death presents the biggest challenge of Trump’s young presidency: what should the U.S. do in response to North Korea’s persistent crimes against humanity?
We Have To Take A Firmer Approach With China
Option one is to change our approach with China. President Trump had high hopes that China would solve the North Korea problem for him. But his hopes seemed to have faded, as he tweeted recently that “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”
We don’t know how much China has really tried. Since President Trump chose to tweet such a message on the eve of a high level US/China security dialogue, many believe he did so in order to pressure China to do more.
U.S. officials involved in the security dialogue with China this week will reportedly bring up their concerns about “nearly 10 Chinese companies and individuals allegedly having links to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programme.” This is a step in the right direction, but isn’t enough.
We know these 10 Chinese individuals and firms are just the tip of the iceberg. Bilateral trade between China and North Korea accounts for 90 percent of all North Korea’s foreign trade volume. Do we really have to guess where North Korea gets its funds, materials, and even technology to build missiles and nuclear weapons from? Do we really have no idea what has kept this isolated poverty-stricken state sustained for this long? But for decades, administration after administration lacked the political will to publicly name and shame Chinese firms, out of the concern that China would retaliate by refusing to help solve the North Korea problem. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that China pretty much helped create the North Korea problem to begin with.
Past economic sanctions against North Korea failed to achieve the desired effect because China never fully implemented those sanctions. Since China won’t stop its economic support of North Korea, the Trump administration should publicize the names of Chinese firms who have done businesses with North Korea, including Chinese banks who helped North Korea launder its illicit gains through drug and weapon sales. Further, the administration needs to put rules in place to sanction these firms as well as any firms who do business with them.
Let’s Encourage Allies To Deny Visas To North Koreans
Besides publicly shaming and sanctioning Chinese firms, we can hit North Korea where it hurts in other areas, too. North Korea is not as isolated as we think. It still has diplomatic relationships with about two dozen countries from Asia to Europe. Some of these countries are our allies. We need to work with them immediately to deny visas for North Korea’s elite visitors and “state sponsored slave” workers.
North Korea’s elite class doesn’t live an impoverished life like the majority of its people. The regime allows them to send their children to the West to get “educated.” Current dictator Kim Jong Un attended a Swiss boarding school between 1998 and 2000. Apparently he learned nothing about democracy and human rights. But, like his father, he developed an expensive taste for western luxury goods. Thanks to imports from China, North Korea’s 1 percent follows their leader’s example, indulging in western luxury goods such as designer handbags, French wine, and German cars, while ordinary citizens suffer. If our allies who have diplomatic relationships with North Korea stop issuing visitor visas to these North Korean elites, these elites may reconsider their unconditional support to their dear leader.
While keeping its elites pampered, North Korea reportedly has sent hundreds of “state-sponsored slave” workers to China, Russia and a few EU nations. These workers are under constant surveillance by the regime and their families back in North Korea serve as government hostages. If a worker defects, the regime will punish his/her family. These workers are forced to work 10-12 hours a day and North Korea confiscates up to 90 percent of their pay, which is equivalent to about $1 to $2 billion a year. This is Kim’s way of sidestepping international economic sanctions and obtaining hard foreign currency to support his regime, especially his nuclear ambition. If our allies stop issuing work visas to North Korean state-sponsored slave workers, it will cut off an important funding source to the regime.
Since Otto Warmbier’s tragic death, the world is watching what the U.S. will do in response. If we keep the business as usual approach, many of our allies and foes will take it as capitulation. The options suggested here probably won’t change Kim Jong Un’s behavior but they could weaken his hand. More importantly, it will send the world a powerful message that the U.S. will hit back 10 times harder at any regime who threatens the safety of U.S. citizens and people around the world.