Friday, June 16, 2017

Why Kim agreed to release Otto Warmbier

Jonathan Cristol, CNN (Jun 13)

Image from (March 2016), with caption: Warmbier looked disoriented and exhausted has he was handcuffed and led out of the court by two men in state uniform to begin his sentence, was was condemned by the White House as 'unduly harsh'

Why did North Korea release Warmbier today? ...
From the North Korean perspective, it may be rational for Pyongyang to take American prisoners and rational to release them under the right circumstances. And while engaging in such behavior is outrageous by any standard of decency, North Korea has little other direct leverage over the United States. Sure, it can fire on American, South Korean or Japanese forces, but if it does, it risks a major military conflict that it cannot win.
If it seizes an American who has traveled to North Korea by choice, it can attempt to extract concessions without provoking an American military strike. North Korea therefore has every incentive to release a prisoner when an arrangement is made, or risk its credibility in future negotiations.
So while the State Department was critical in securing Warmbier's release, Kim likely had additional motivations.
First, if Warmbier had died, he would have carried less weight in any sort of negotiation with the US government. Alive, he could potentially record messages pleading for his release and serve as a human shield in the event of an attack. But if he died, in addition to reducing North Korean negotiating power, he could provoke retaliation. If North Korea does not have the ability to cure Warmbier, or if his condition is not curable, it is far better to return him than to let him die in a North Korean prison.
Second, his release can be spun by Pyongyang as a "humanitarian" gesture. He may, according to Kim, deserve to spend 15 years doing hard labor, but North Korea can claim it is making a gesture of good will, be it ever so small. North Korea may sink ships, fire missiles and hold thousands of people in "re-education camps," where they are subject to forced labor and hours of ideological indoctrination, but it eventually let this sick kid go home to his parents, so it's not entirely bad, right? North Korea does not have a sophisticated public diplomacy operation inside Western countries, but it also has no natural audience that it could expect to sway to its "side." All it can hope to do is to ratchet down, or at least not ratchet up, an American drumbeat for war. ...

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