People, not monsters, killed Otto Warmbier

Photo credit: Reuters

Otto Warmbier died on June 19, 2017. The University of Virginia junior went on a New Year’s trip to North Korea, where he was arrested for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel, and was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. After seventeen months in the Hermit Kingdom under conditions that remain a mystery, the 22-year-old young man returned to the United States, in a state of coma that he never woke up from.

Earlier in the day before the tragic announcement from Otto’s family, The Atlantic published its July/August issue cover story, “How to Deal with North Korea”, illustrated with a menacing nuclear warhead surrounded by tanks and fighter jets bearing DPRK flags. Otto Warmbier died in the midst of heightened tensions from North Korea’s expanding nuclear program and persistent pursuit of long-range ballistic missiles.

Like Fred Hiatt wrote eloquently in the Washington Post, I too “can’t stop thinking about Otto Warmbier”. The loss of a bright, young life should not be in vain, and I too want the truth revealed, the perpetrators punished, and justice served. It is right to blame the North Korean regime for this atrocious act among its long record of grotesque human rights violations, but further demonization of the regime or heated rhetoric suggesting retaliation will only worsen the crisis.

In times of tragedy when our blood boils in rage and our hearts break for the senseless loss, it is of particular importance and urgency for cooler heads and bigger hearts to prevail, not only to mourn the victim, but to try to understand the perpetrator. Only by understanding both the North Korean regime and its people, and pursuing engagement based on shared humanity, could the international community chart a course away from the dangerous narrow straits of further provocation, into open, calmer waters where coexistence at peace is a possibility.

The similarities with Mao’s China To understand North Korea today, one of the closest analogies in history is China in the 1950s and 60s. The two countries were comrades in the Korean War, a conflict which Mao Zedong played a direct role in instigating and to which he sent in his first-born son who never came back. Almost seven decades after the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army crossed the Yalu River, China’s Communist neighbor to the Northeast seems to have frozen in time and development with the conflict itself.

The 50s and 60s in China witnessed two of the greatest human catastrophes in the twentieth century, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolutions, during which tens of millions perished as a direct result of extreme political ideology. It was a time when empty stomachs went unfilled, and hungry minds fed only with government-sanctioned propaganda. It was a time when the country was closed to the world and ruled by a brutal dictator who, in order to stay in power, was willing to jail and kill those closest to him for the slightest offense. It was also a time when China successfully pursued the development of nuclear weapons.

The United States’ policy towards North Korea often finds itself in a moral dilemma of interests versus values: should the United States be willing to overlook North Korea’s dire human-rights conditions in pursuit of its nuclear disarmament? This question has become exceedingly difficult to answer in the wake of Otto Warmbier’s death, at a time when North Korea’s nuclear program casts its shadow of doom over the entire Pacific and possibly also the continental United States.

However, this question overlooks the fact that the North Korean regime’s brutality towards its own citizens and relentless pursuit of its nuclear capabilities are fruits of the same poisonous tree, born out of deeply seeded insecurity and the instincts to survive. It was the same insecurity and survival instincts that drove Mao to incite political terror among hundreds of millions of Chinese people, while stating to the Politburo the absolute need for nuclear weapons: “Not only are we going to have more airplanes and artillery, but also the atomic bomb. In today’s world, if we don’t want to be bullied, we have to have this thing.

A survivor not a madman Many people, from the highest levels of the United States government to popular commentary, have used the word “crazy” or its equivalent to describe North Korea’s young dictator, Kim Jong Un. This notion is intellectually lazy and self-deceiving. One could never predict the next moves of a crazy person, and could hence be absolved of all responsibility to understand their behaviors. Only Kim Jong Un’s psychiatrist, if he has one, could diagnose his true mental state, but his actions since taking power are not the ones of a madman, but those of a survivor.

For Kim, threats to his own life are both foreign and domestic. Decapitation has long been floated as an option for regime change and eventual resolution of the North Korean crisis in the United States’ and South Korean defense circles, not to mention less-than-tasteful Hollywood productions. On the other hand, short of dying of natural causes as did his father and grandfather, the younger Kim who inherited the throne of a hereditary dynasty does not have the luxury of giving up the reins of power peacefully and riding into the sunset. History is littered with cautionary tales of past monarchs who died brutal deaths at the hands of their family members in epic struggles for power. Kim’s executions of his uncle and brothers were inhumane but not inhuman; indeed, they manifest the extremes humanity is capable of reaching in an effort to survive.

Understanding the North Korean people The simplistic thinking that casts Kim as an incomprehensible madman also extends to popular perceptions of the North Korean people. In the aforementioned Washington Post column, Fred Hiatt writes that “Thousands — no, hundreds of thousands — of Koreans have been subjected to similar criminal abuse as Otto Warmbier suffered at the hands of North Korea’s Stalinist regime.” This is true, but the North Korean state is not a simple dichotomy of the people versus the regime, the victims versus the victimizer. Throughout history, oppressed people have contributed to their own oppression. In authoritarian regimes, political terror not only emanates from the top, but is also perpetuated in the masses through self-censorship and policing of one another.

During the Cultural Revolutions in Mao’s China, students turned on teachers, sons turned on fathers, and siblings and neighbors turned on each other in a collective race to demonstrate maximum loyalty to the Dear Leader and his cause. In the purposefully incited ideological frenzy and cult of personality, as is the case in North Korea today, the victims are often also the victimizers. There are no clear lines between the people and the regime, when allegiance to the government is cultivated as a core part of national identity for its citizenry.

The abstraction of the victim and the victimizer scenario is convenient, because it presents an easy and obvious solution, as popularized by countless Hollywood action flicks: the hero who defeats the villain and liberates the people. The savior mentality is satisfying and even noble, but it is oftentimes not practical when the lines between victim and victimizer are blurry to non-existent. In the case of North Korea, the self-righteous idea of liberating its people can be dangerously counter-productive, because it overlooks two crucial facts, that the North Koreans are a proud people with a strong national identity, and that the Korean War never ended with a formal peace treaty.

Why punitive actions won’t work Human beings at war do not behave the same way as human beings at peace. The imminent threat of extinction deprives one of the luxury of strategic thinking, and short-term survival becomes the highest priority. It forces one side to dehumanize people on the other side as symbolic enemies instead of full-fleshed human beings. Any United States-led effort to topple the North Korean regime, however self-righteous from a magisterial standpoint, is much more likely to be resisted as invasion by the North Korean people, instead of being welcomed as liberation.

Short of regime change, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula also cannot be achieved under a war-setting. For a citizenry at war, weapons of mass destruction are perceived instead as weapons of mass protection for its own people, their only chance at victory or at least prolonged survival. A citizenry at war does not conduct unilateral disarmament at the bequest of their enemy, or tolerate the destruction of a key part of its defense system at the hands of such an enemy.

Recognizing the potentially catastrophic risks from military options, the United States and its allies have traditionally imposed various sanctions towards North Korea. Despite being less inflammatory than military strikes or assassination plots in the short term, economic sanctions are rarely effective in dictatorships where the people bear the brunt of financial hardship. This is particularly true in a regime as secluded as North Korea in which the outside world has few financial levers to pull. If future sanctions were indeed harsh enough that they threatened the survival of the regime, it is equally plausible that instead of conceding to terms of relief, Kim would resort to offensive tactics in a desperate attempt to stay in power. What is more dangerous than a dictator with resources, is a dictator with nothing left to lose.

When a liberal democracy tries to punish a dictatorship into compliance, be it through military or economic means, the dictatorship often has the perverse upper-hand as a result of the depth of civilian suffering it is willing to tolerate, as well as the added legitimacy to its own people through the presence of an external enemy.

A difficult but plausible solution There are no easy answers or perfect solutions in this complex international crisis with multiple actors of divergent goals and interests. The path forward must be based on understanding these different players, acknowledging the differences, and finding common ground.

Given that the North Korean leadership are not, in fact, crazy, it is more likely than not that Otto Warmbier’s death was their fault but not their intended goal. The return of Otto Warmbier to his family in the United States in the final days of his life indicates a degree of remorse from the North Korean regime, and the United States should use this as leverage to first and foremost find out the truth about Otto’s conditions and treatment in captivity, and demand the return of the three hostages still being held in North Korea.

Beyond the immediate term, the United States should refrain from touting the reunification of the Korean Peninsula as the ultimate goal for the resolution of the North Korean crisis. This may indeed be the inevitable outcome in the far future, if one believes in the aspiration for freedom as a universal human value, but active pursuit of it in the near term only heightens the differences among the key players involved. The United States and China both desire a unified Korea in an ideal scenario, but diverge on how that state should be governed or allied with. South Korea has a Ministry of Reunification, but South Korea is also a democracy, and the issue is highly controversial among its people. Furthermore, the proposal of a unified Korea under a democratic government similar to that of South Korea’s risks stripping the North Korean people of their national identity, one of the few things they could hold onto and hence hold dear.

Instead of trying to resolve the ideological differences between itself, South Korea, and China, the United States should work with China and South Korea along axes where their interests align such as the prevention of a nuclear war and their common values in mitigating humanitarian disasters, the latter also being in the self-interest of North Korea’s neighboring countries. Concrete actions should begin with a formal end to the Korean War in the form of a peace treaty, and instead of sanctions, bringing substantial developmental assistance to North Korea.

China has long stated denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula as its shared goal with the United States, most recently reiterated at the US-China diplomatic and security dialogue two days after Otto Warmbier’s passing. In the meantime, China’s trade with North Korea grew by 37.4% in the first quarter of 2017. China instinctively understands North Korea as it sees in the Hermit Kingdom a reflection of itself in the not-too-distant past. Also taking a lesson from the collapse of the former Soviet Union, Chinese leaders recognize that economic security is the bedrock of national security, and only an economically secure North Korea will be able to see beyond nuclear weapons as its only security guarantee at the moment.

China and South Korea should take the lead in engaging with the North Korean economy, but the United States also has an important role to play in welcoming and facilitating the process. The United States had provided modest amounts of foreign aid to North Korea between 1995 and 2008, totaling 1.3billion dollars, but stopped during the Obama administration. The assistance should not only resume, but go beyond mere band-aid measures of emergency charitable giving in an earnest effort to bring North Korea into the global economy.

These positive instead of punitive policies can be highly unappealing to the righteous mind, as they can be perceived as rewarding the brutal regime for its bad behavior, but moral supremacy in this complicated situation is a lonely high ground with no plausible pathways out. From the standpoint of the North Korean regime, when compliance with the rules serves self-interest of survival and enrichment better than breaking them, any rational actor should choose the former. A North Korea at peace with the outside world with a growing economy might not give up its nuclear weapons, but is much less likely to use them than a North Korea at war and in a state of dire poverty. When the North Korean regime has more at stake as an integral part of the global economy, it also gives the international community more leverage in pressuring its compliance with rules and norms, including the possible outcome of denuclearization.

More fundamentally, the normalization of the North Korean regime has to start with empowering its people. True empowerment of the North Korean people cannot be delivered by a foreign knight in shiny armor who slays the brutal dictator, but can be achieved through a long arduous process of peace and development. When survival is no longer a concern but a given, the people can finally start to contemplate how they want to live, including how they want to be governed.

Remembering Otto Warmier Otto Warmier was a vibrant young man with a bright future. Looking at photos of him in news reports, it’s hard not to feel the warmth of his humanity beaming through. Otto Warmier’s humanity was denied when he became a pawn in a political game played by a deeply insecure regime that regularly strips the basic humanity of its own people.

In mourning Otto Warmier’s life and condemning the regime that killed him, United States must not fall into the same trap of dehumanizing other human beings for political convenience or self-indignation. Demonizing the North Korean regime or infantilizing the North Korean people are both dehumanizing acts. The eventual resolution of the North Korean crisis must start with recognizing the shared humanity of all players involved. A failure to do so runs the grave risk of unleashing the real monster, that in the form of a mushroom cloud.