The criminal regime in North Korea has claimed countless hundreds of thousands, even millions, of victims over the years among its own people who have been imprisoned, starved, tortured, and killed so that the Kim family may enjoy water parks and foie gras. Many Americans have suffered because of the Kim dynasty’s ambitions too—from the 36,000 U.S. soldiers killed in the Korean War to two U.S. officers killed in the DMZ in 1976 while attempting to cut down a tree.
Now add another American to the casualty list. Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, has now died after having returned from North Korean captivity in a coma. His offense? While on a tourist trip to the North, he allegedly swiped a propaganda poster that he no doubt wanted as a souvenir. It’s still not clear what happened to him in North Korean hands, but the result is all too evident: a perfectly healthy, happy, high-achieving young man went to North Korea and returned in a coma from which he never woke up.
As Fred Hiatt notes in a searing column in the Washington Post, the North’s inhumanity toward Otto Warmbier is reflective of its broader barbarism. Hiatt quotes a UN commission that studied North Korea’s gulags
The inmate population has been gradually eliminated through deliberate starvation, forced labour, executions, torture, rape and the denial of reproductive rights enforced through punishment, forced abortion and infanticide. The commission estimates that hundreds of thousands of political prisoners have perished in these camps over the past five decades. The unspeakable atrocities that are being committed against inmates of the kwanliso political prison camps resemble the horrors of camps that totalitarian States established during the twentieth century.
This is, as Hiatt writes, brutality that should not be tolerated in the 21st century. A full appreciation of the horrors of the North Korean regime should make us realize the inadequacy of the normal agenda of the U.S. government toward North Korea. The Trump administration is now following in the footsteps of Presidents Obama, Bush and Clinton in making North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction program the main issue for U.S. diplomacy. That’s understandable because, with the exception of a few tragic victims like Otto Warmbier, North Korea’s human-rights abuses do not directly threaten us and its WMD program does. The threat will only grow if North Korea manages to put a nuclear warhead atop an ICBM that can hit the East Coast of the United States.
In truth, however, the denuclearization agenda is far too narrow and has little chance of success. President Trump is discovering that for himself. He tried to pressure China into cracking down on North Korea but without any evident success. The U.S. can and should impose further sanctions, but these will not lead North Korea to denuclearize—Kim Jong-un, having seen what happened to Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, will never give up the one thing that guarantees his hold on power.
Military action against North Korea’s missile and nuclear sites is not a good option either. The chances of miscalculation are too great with a fanatical regime that has nuclear weapons and 10,000 artillery tubes zeroed in on Seoul. There is simply no neat, surgical way to remove North Korea’s WMD without risking Korean War II, this time with nuclear weapons.
That leaves a new version of the old containment doctrine: deter North Korea from initiating hostilities while squeezing its regime and waiting for its eventual collapse. Unification of the Korean Peninsula is the only sure way of ending the threat from North Korea, and, as the death of Otto Warmbier reminds us, the threat extends beyond nuclear weapons and missiles.
The Kim family regime itself is a Weapon of Mass Destruction, and its chief victims are the people of North Korea. Someday—no one knows when but the day will come—the dysfunctional regime in Pyongyang will collapse, and the entire Peninsula will be whole and free. The transition will not be smooth or easy, but the U.S. should make unification its primary policy goal in North Korea because it is the only way to end, once and for all, the threat posed both to its own people and its neighbors by the most savage regime on the planet.