Otto Warmbier was the quintessential American college student. He faced a promising future and was keen to broaden his view of the world. It was likely that sense of adventure that convinced him to join a tour group traveling from China to North Korea – a country few outsiders understand.
Unfortunately, it did not take long for Warmbier to discover that North Korea was a pot of misery and inhumanity. In January 2016, North Korean authorities arrested Warmbier at Pyongyang airport for stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel. Two months later, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for acts against the state. Fifteen months after that sentencing, Warmbier was flown back to the United States in a vegetative state. He died a few days later.
The brutal mistreatment of a 22-year-old American in North Korea’s custody has shocked the country, with President Donald Trump describing Warmbier’s incarceration and likely torture as “a total disgrace” that “should never ever be allowed to happen.”
There is no question that the Trump administration will need to respond in some formal way to Warmbier’s untimely death, and there has been no shortage of pundits and experts recommending tough action against Pyongyang. Suggestions include everything from unilaterally slapping secondary sanctions on Chinese firms that do business with the North Korean government to cutting off any possibility of talks in the future. The editors at the National Review even recommended a US-led campaign to kick North Korea out of the United Nations, a bid that would be an international humiliation to leader Kim Jong-un if successful.
The problem with North Korea, however, is that we are not talking about a normal state operating under normal protocols. Its political leadership does not respect the normal moral value of right and wrong. This is exactly why the Trump administration must tread cautiously before doing anything that could turn a heartbreaking loss into a regional cataclysm.
Incremental, but effective, measures against Pyongyang in retaliation for Warmbier’s suspicious death would send a stark warning to Kim that his regime will be held accountable. But just as importantly, it would stop shy of goading the North Koreans into reacting in a violent or irrational way.
There are several policies that the Trump administration should and must implement. The most obvious recommendation – and one that senior lawmakers are already leaning towards – is Trump prohibiting US citizens from traveling to North Korea as tourists. Although the US State Department has repeatedly warned Americans not to travel to North Korea, that travel warning does not carry any legal weight. Former basketball star Dennis Rodman was, in fact, just arriving in North Korea for a visit when Warmbier was released.
The White House can take the State Department’s optional bulletin and transform it into a mandatory edict. Trump can do this either by issuing his own executive action or by publicly supporting a bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives that would ban the Treasury Department from issuing a license related to tourism to any individual or entity subject to US jurisdiction.
Pyongyang must understand that it will no longer be able to profit from several hundred Americans visiting North Korea every year as long as the regime continues to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute US citizens. In addition, the three Americans currently detained in North must be transferred immediately into US custody.
Another option for the White House is an expansion of sanctions against any firm, individual, entity, financial institution, or government that accepts North Korean workers onto their territories. In February 2017, the U.N. Security Council’s Panel of Experts on North Korea reported that the Kim regime “earns money by dispatching migrant workers overseas” – a practice that South Korea’s Unification Ministry has estimated brings in roughly $900 million a year to Pyongyang’s coffers. While $900 million not seem like a lot for a national government, it is a valuable source of revenue for North Korea, which needs every penny it can get to finance its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Any country that continues to import forced labor from North Korea is contributing to the problem and does not deserve to operate within the US financial system.
Regrettably, none of these measures will bring Warmbier back to life. Many lawmakers in Washington would like to go a lot further, including indefinitely suspending any talks between the US and North Korea as long as Kim flouts the principles of common humanity.
But as terrible as this entire ordeal is for the Warmbier family, it would be imprudent for the United States to terminate negotiating channels with Pyongyang that could be valuable in the future. The most prudent action that the US can take is to ensure that no other American suffers the terrible fate of Otto Warmbier.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities. The opinions expressed here are his own.