The tragic death of 22-year-old American student Otto Warmbier from unexplained injuries suffered during 17 months of detention in North Korea, shows the true face of that country’s government. A North Korean kangaroo court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years forced labor after he was caught moving a political banner from his hotel.
While Warmbier should have never been sent to trial in the first place, most expected that after a period of being isolated and interrogated, he would be returned home after the US made some political concessions to Pyongyang. After all, this is what North Korea has done with many Americans in the past.
No one anticipated that Warmbier would be abused in a way that more closely resembles the manner in which North Korea treats its own citizens, where those who cross the government or show disloyalty to leader Kim Jong-Un face severe consequences, including death. At his trial, Warmbier cried out for forgiveness for making what he called the “worst mistake of my life." But since he was a foreigner, few believed that mistake would cost him his life.
The international community must now recognize the reality that North Korea is a human rights black hole for both foreigners and citizens. Warmbier’s death should be a wake-up call to governments that focus must not just be on security, but also human rights concerns when dealing with Pyongyang. North Korea committed a grave injustice against Warmbier and his family, and they deserve the truth from Pyongyang about what happened. No evidence has been found to corroborate Pyongyang’s claim that his condition was triggered by botulism and a medically ill-advised sleeping pill. How did such a healthy young man suffer such severe brain damage that he remained in a coma since March 2016? Tomas Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, said Warmbier’s case is “a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate treatment for prisoners (in North Korea).”
North Korea should immediately release other foreigners it has detained – six South Korean, one Canadian, and three Americans – and end its practice of seizing foreign nationals for political purposes. And governments around the world must now recognize that they can expect no special treatment from Pyongyang for their detained nationals. Only by making human rights a primary demand – for everyone in North Korea, citizens and foreigners alike – can they reasonably hope to change Pyongyang’s abusive practices.