SEOUL – North Korea has a well-thumbed playbook for detained American citizens who are valuable diplomatic bargaining chips for the regime, but the case of Otto Warmbier, flown home in a coma last week, is a glaring exception.
The script is simple and familiar: arrest an American, hold a show trial ending with a lengthy jail term, release them in exchange for a high-profile visit — Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have both helped free detainees in the past — which is used for domestic propaganda.
“With Otto Warmbier they wanted to play the same game again,” said Andrei Lankov, Korearisk.com director and professor at Kookmin University.
When it works, “it’s a brilliant propaganda coup,” for the regime, he said.
Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from Cincinnati who was in North Korea as a tourist, looked set to follow the usual pattern. He tried to steal a propaganda poster, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor at a show trial.
But then something went wrong.
“If you are always playing games, one day things are going to backfire. This is pretty much what happened in this case,” Lankov said.
Doctors treating Warmbier in the U.S., where he arrived last week after being released by Pyongyang on “humanitarian grounds,” said that the student is in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness,” having suffered a severe brain injury, most likely due to a cardiopulmonary arrest.
The U.S. doctors could not prove what triggered this but said they had found no signs of a botulism infection — the official explanation given by the North Korean regime for how the young man fell into a coma.
North Korea, a one-party state that maintains prison camps and has a dire record on human rights, has for decades pursued a nuclear weapons program, despite global condemnation and successive rounds of U.N. sanctions.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made “solving” the peninsula’s problem a top priority for his administration.
Experts said it was unlikely North Korea would have intentionally put a detained American into a coma.
“It must have been an accident and that’s probably why they were hiding it for a year,” said Go Myong-hyun, researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
North Korean escapees have reported that it is common practice to send home prisoners who are very ill, said Greg Scarlatoiu, executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK).
“This way, political prison camp and other detention facility officials avoid having to deal with that situation,” he said.
Once Pyongyang realized the seriousness of Warmbier’s medical situation, they would likely have panicked, said Stephan Haggard, Director of the Korea-Pacific Program at the University of California, San Diego.
It could be that “Warmbier went into a coma very soon after the sentencing, but the intelligence services covered it up or didn’t report it up the chain,” he told said, adding that apparently even the North’s Foreign Ministry had been out of the loop.
Eventually “someone realizes that the worst of all possible worlds is for the guy to die in custody,” he said, at which point the North embarked on a flurry of secret diplomatic activity that led to Warmbier’s release.
From journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee to missionary Kenneth Bae, most Americans detained by the North have been released after high-profile interventions.
But “what this accumulation of detainees reveals is that North Korea is a dangerous place, it is easy to step over some line,” Haggard said, adding he was increasingly in favor of a tourism ban because the “hostages” were a liability for the U.S. government.
Three more U.S. citizens are currently being held by North Korea, including two men who taught at a Pyongyang university funded by overseas Christian groups, and a Korean-American pastor who was accused of espionage for the South.
Former prisoners like Bae have spoken of long days of hard work, medical problems and emotional and verbal abuse, but other detainees have reported that conditions were tolerable.
Lankov said in general North Korea’s aim was that detained Americans “should be treated not just well, but extremely well.”
“It is not good if you go back and start selling stories about suffering and torture as that will damage North Korea’s international standing,” he said.
Some experts suggested that the timing of Warmbier’s release — coinciding with a visit to Pyongyang by eccentric ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman — might have allowed North Korea to salvage something from the situation.
“Pyongyang timed the release to deliver a message to Washington. The message is that the only way forward is through engagement,” North Korea expert Ken Gause told the Yonhap news agency.
He said that the rare exchanges might be the beginning of “a diplomatic dance” that could lead to talks.