The death Monday of Otto Warmbier of suburban Cincinnati following more than a year in a North Korean prison shocked U.S. lawmakers and officials even as analysts acknowledged the United States has limited options to retaliate against the secretive Pyongyang regime.
President Donald Trump said in a statement: “Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
But despite such tough words, military and diplomatic analysts said the United States has few options to punish North Korea. Not only does the North Korean regime possess some kind of nuclear weapon, but South’s Korea capital and largest city, Seoul, is just 35 miles from the Demilitarized Zone which has separated the two countries since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
“There are no good options to retaliate in this case,” said Peter Mansoor, the General Raymond E. Mason chairman in military history at Ohio State University.
“It’s pretty clear something the North Koreans did to him caused his death,” said Mansoor, who served as executive officer in Iraq to General David Petraeus. “North Korea is already under sanctions for its nuclear program, but clearly we’re not going to take military action in this case. There is nothing we can do except voice our extreme displeasure and get the international community to speak about this.”
Mitchell Lerner, director of the Institute for Korean Studies at Ohio State University, said “stepping up sanctions is the best option of a bad lot. If one more American politician says this is China’s problems, my head is going to explode. China is not the answer. China’s influence in North Korea is very limited.”
“I don’t know what our options are,” said Lerner. “They aren’t good. But at the same time, something has to be done,” adding the current regime of Kim Jong-un “seems much more provocative and much more determined run a horrific regime without any concern about the international community.”
In the past, American presidents have resisted using military action against North Korea, despite provocation. In January of 1968, North Korea seized the U.S. spy ship Pueblo with its crew of 83, one of whom was killed in the attack.
The remaining crew members were badly mistreated by North Korea before releasing them in December of 1968. The ship itself still remains in North Korean hands.
In April 1969, North Korea shot down a Navy EC 121 reconnaissance plan in international waters, killing all 31 crew members. Faced with a land war in South Vietnam in which 545,000 U.S. soldiers were fighting, the newly inaugurated President Richard Nixon chose not to retaliate.
Former Rep. Tony Hall, D-Dayton, who has visited North Korea eight times, said he was appalled by North Korea’s medical system, which could have made it impossible for Warmbier to receive proper care.
Each time Hall visited North Korea, he asked to see a hospital and he quickly discovered how primitive the medical system was: No antiseptic. Gauze rinsed out and reused. No over-the-counter medicines. Surgeries done without any pain medication. Conditions in the rural hospitals and the urban hospitals were similar.
So when Hall heard about Warmbier, a Wyoming, Ohio, native who was taken prisoner in North Korea, he worried. “If you get sick there, you’re in trouble,” he said. “They just don’t have the medical facilities to take care of him.”
Most people, including Warmbier’s father, Fred, don’t believe the college student got sick. Warmbier said his son was brutalized while being held captive in North Korea after attempting to steal a propaganda poster.
Ohio lawmakers Monday expressed sympathy and anger on news of the death. “Our hearts are broken for Otto’s family and everyone who knew and loved him,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said Warmbier “was such a promising young man. He was kind, generous and accomplished. He had all the talent you could ever ask for and a bright future ahead of him.”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, said he was “deeply saddened to hear of Otto Warmbier’s passing.
“His life was taken too soon by the abusive and repressive regime in North Korea, a threat to our country we will continue to fight,” Turner said. “Otto’s family remains in my thoughts and prayers, as they have been throughout this harrowing journey.”