North Korea

US tourist becomes pawn in the diplomatic game between Washington and Pyongyang

Uni student’s sentencing to 15 years in jail comes amid heightened American pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and rocket tests

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 11:28pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 March, 2016, 11:28pm

The US State Department warns Americans against travel to North Korea, spelling out in detail on its website why the country should be avoided. That does not mean that it is an unsafe place to visit. It simply that rules and laws are different, and for US citizens in particular, there are inherent risks. University student Otto Warmbier found that out first-hand, having been sentenced to 15 years in jail with hard labour for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner. Whether so harsh a penalty befits such a crime is not the point, however. He has unwittingly become yet another political pawn in a game that has no hope of ending as long as the two governments refuse to talk to each other.

American citizens have previously been used as tools by the North to put pressure on the US government. Warmbier was arrested in January as his tour group was leaving, and his televised confession and sentencing on Wednesday came amid heightened pressure by Washington against Pyongyang over its recent nuclear and rocket tests. His sentencing followed tougher US sanctions and the imposition of strengthened economic and trade measures by the UN Security Council. Massive annual military exercises with South Korea simulating an attack on the North and talks on a proposed missile shield system further infuriated Pyongyang.

Warmbier has been accused of undermining national unity. The US and South Korea are often charged with sending spies into the North in the guise of tourists or aid workers and a great show is made of those who are held. Several times, releases have depended on a high-profile visit, as with former president Bill Clinton in 2009 and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, in 2014. The same pattern seems likely following the student’s sentencing.

Matters would be different were there at least a dialogue between the sides. They have broken off all channels of communication, even for military crisis management. High preconditions have been set for resumption: for the US and South Korea, tangible denuclearisation measures; for the North, the signing of a peace treaty and ending of a “hostile policy”. Six-party talks brokered by China have been moribund since 2008.

Breaking the cycle of threats and provocation will take setting aside mistrust to search for peace. Ever-tougher sanctions have only hardened Pyongyang’s resolve – its ballistic missile test on Thursday showed that clearly. Talks, perhaps with a non-aggression pact or a deal for a peace treaty in exchange for an end to weapons proliferation, are the most viable starting points.