For years, the State Department has worked privately to negotiate the release of Americans detained in North Korea, often working through an intermediary such as Sweden, which has had an embassy in the country since 1970. Government officials in the know are told not to say anything publicly that might provoke North Korean retaliation against U.S. citizens. Eventually, the approach usually works.
In Otto Warmbier’s case, it didn’t. [After being held for a year and a half, Warmbier’s] situation represents the worst outcome for any American whom North Korea has detained.
After a year of remaining silent, Otto Warmbier’s parents began appearing on prime-time news shows, demanding that more be done to bring home their son. Fred Warmbier and his wife Cindy decided to start talking. They gave interviews to Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and The Washington Post, among others.
Few on Capitol Hill are blaming the Warmbiers now that everyone knows about their son’s condition. Much remains unknown about what happened to Otto Warmbier, but he reportedly has been in a coma for more than a year. Brain scans show severe damage. Cincinnati doctors describe his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.”
Otto Warmbier’s condition and the fact that no one knew about it for a year shows the limitations of the approach of the State Department.
The Warmbiers’ efforts may have put more pressure on both Washington and Pyongyang, but complaints from high-ranking officials would have worked better, said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Governments respond to “pressure, embarrassment and exposure.”
“I’m hopeful that what happened to Otto will embolden members of the House and Senate — and, most importantly, the international community — to increase pressure on this pariah country,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio,, who has grown close to the Warmbiers since their ordeal began.