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Otto Warmbier is now home, after being released from a North Korean prison after 18 months. But he’s returned home in a coma. His father speaks of his love and support from the community.
Liz Dufour

CINCINNATI — At first glance, the United States seemingly can’t do anything about North Korea’s treatment of college student Otto Warmbier.

Three other Americans are detained there, and officials don’t want to jeopardize their safety. Plus, the unpredictable regime has nuclear weapons, and the U.S. doesn’t want to provoke use of those missiles on ally South Korea.

“It’s a matter of leverage. And we’ve got fairly minimal leverage,” said Richard Harknett, head of the University of Cincinnati’s political science department. “This is the most sanctioned country, practically, in the world. There’s not much else we can do.”

But some say Americans, particularly those in government, can do more:

• They can speak out publicly about North Korea instead of staying quiet.

• They can put public pressure on North Korea’s ally, China.

• They can change the long-term policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations of silence.

• They can be more aggressive to bring others home to prevent them from suffering severe brain damage.

After a year of remaining silent, Warmbier’s parents began appearing on prime-time news shows, demanding that more be done to bring home their son.

That 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.”

► His condition: Can Otto Warmbier recover from ‘unresponsive wakefulness?’
► Doctors: Otto Warmbier has suffered a ‘severe neurological injury’

For years, the State Department has worked privately to negotiate the release of Americans detained in 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. 

“We can’t guarantee that we can get people back, so we encourage you not to go.”

Heather Nauert, U.S. State Department

In Warmbier’s case, it didn’t. His situation represents the worst outcome for any American whom North Korea has detained.

Much remains unknown about what happened to Warmbier, but he reportedly has been in a coma for more than a year. Brain scans show severe damage.

Cincinnati doctors Thursday described his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.” 

Warmbier, a native of the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, Ohio, was a 21-year-old University of Virginia student when he visited North Korea with a tour group in late 2015. He was detained as the group was preparing to leave the country in early 2016 and charged with engaging in anti-state activity.

He was held for a year and a half. His family got one letter from him, dated March 2, 2016, and then nothing. He was photographed March 16, 2016, as North Korea’s highest court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor after he supposedly confessed to trying to take a propaganda banner home with him.

“We tried to stay low,” Warmbier’s dad, Fred Warmbier, told reporters Thursday morning. “We were advised that it was important that you don’t upset the North Koreans. We followed that logic.”

► His return: U.S. college student released by North Korea arrives back in Ohio
► About Otto:: Who is the student released from North Korea?

But nothing happened.

So, Fred Warmbier and his wife decided to start talking. They gave interviews to Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and The Washington Post, among others.

Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate who was arrested in early 2016 in North Korea, speaks during a news conference June 15, 2017, in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, Ohio. (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)

Few on Capitol Hill are blaming the Warmbiers now that everyone knows about their son’s condition.

“North Korea seems to have been holding onto him quietly, hoping his situation improves so that they can get back to using him as a political bargaining chip,” said Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. 

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, Robertson said. State Department officials would not comment for this story.

But the department has acknowledged the limitations of its official stance on the authoritarian regime.

“We can’t guarantee that we can get people back, so we encourage you not to go,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday.

The stance of Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, long has been to be tough on North Korea regarding the country’s nuclear testing and its “inability to live within the rules that the rest of the international community has established.” Now he plans put pressure on China, North Korea’s biggest trading partner, and said North Korea’s most important ally should say it won’t do business with a country that acts improperly.

“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 Portman, who lives in the Cincinnati suburb of Terrace Park and has grown close to the Warmbiers since their ordeal began.

► Speaking out: Ohio parents beg Trump for help in son’s release from North Korea
► Danger: Americans traveling to North Korea face serious risk of arrest, detention

Nations and international rights groups should pressure North Korea to accept an investigation into its treatment of Otto Warmbier as a possible violation of the Geneva Convention, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said. Richardson, who served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton, now is a negotiator for detainees in countries hostile to the United States and had sought to secure Otto Warmbier’s release.

The U.S. also should press for additional international sanctions on North Korea, Richardson said. The United Nations Security Council this month expanded sanctions on North Korea after its recent nuclear missile tests, but China has opposed more stringent efforts, such as an oil embargo.

► His sentencing: U.S. urges North Korea to release American student
► After arrest: Cincinnati man finds tourism in North Korea not for the faint of heart

Perhaps holding up China’s ally as a human-rights abuser, a place where a young man’s life was destroyed, might change the country’s mind, Richardson said. The ultimate hope: that pressure on North Korea could result in the release of the other three Americans held.

“This a real opportunity to say to the Chinese, ‘Look at these human rights violations. Look what they did to this young man,’ ” Richardson said. “This is one of the worst violations, the most egregious treatment of human rights that I’ve seen.”

Follow Chrissie Thompson and Hannah Sparling on Twitter: @CThompsonENQ and @hksparling

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Americans still detained in North Korea

Three U.S. citizens are still imprisoned in secretive North Korea, which has no diplomatic relations with the United States. Two were arrested in the past two months:

• May 6. Kim Hak-Song, also known as Jin Xue Song, accused of “hostile acts.” He had been doing agricultural development work at the research farm of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and was living in Pyongyang.

• April 23. Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-Duk, accused of “hostile acts.” He had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and most recently had been living in North Korea with his wife, still believed to be there. He supposedly had been volunteering at an orphanage.

• October 2015. Kim Dong-Chul of Fairfax, Va., was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016 on charges of spying and other offenses. A month before his trial, he supposedly apologized for trying to steal military secrets for South Koreans. He had been living in Rason, North Korea, in a special economic zone where he ran a trading and hotel services company.

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