SEOUL — When a senior US official visits North Korea, it is usually taken as a sign that tensions between the adversaries are easing somewhat. That is particularly true when the official brings home a newly freed American captive.
But the trip made last week by Joseph Y. Yun, the top US envoy on North Korea, was starkly different. The American prisoner he brought home, Otto Warmbier, had been in a coma for most of the 17 months he spent incarcerated in the North. On Monday, Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student, died at a hospital in Cincinnati, where his parents blamed Pyongyang’s “awful, torturous mistreatment” of their son.
Analysts said anger over Warmbier’s death would dim, if not scuttle, any prospect of a less antagonistic relationship in the near future between Washington and Pyongyang, which is still holding three other Americans. The White House has quietly pushed for the release of all the Americans as a first step toward better relations, and President Trump has sometimes publicly indicated a willingness to talk with the North’s leader, Kim Jong Un, about its pursuit of nuclear arms and missiles capable of striking the United States.
“I believe it’s going to set back any serious discussion about a diplomatic dialogue until this is cleared up,” former governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, an expert on North Korea who has helped extricate Americans held there, said of Warmbier’s death. “I think the first objective has to be to get the three other Americans out, and get a full explanation of what happened to Otto Warmbier.”
Jae H. Ku, director of the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, agreed that moves toward diplomacy would be delayed. “I think it’s going to be slowed down. There is going to be a lot of anger and venting of frustrations,” he said.
But other analysts said that however horrific the case might be, the Trump administration was unlikely to let it upset the momentum toward dialogue it has built. They said that Yun’s trip was the first fruit of those efforts and that North Korea may have freed Warmbier to open up space for diplomacy with Washington, even if they anticipated the anger that his condition would provoke in the United States.
A statement on Monday from Trump about Warmbier condemned the North for its “brutality,” but he and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson both stopped short of announcing fresh sanctions in response.
Warmbier was visiting North Korea as part of a tour group when he was detained at the Pyongyang airport in January 2016. Two months later, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for the “hostile act” of trying to steal a propaganda poster off the wall of his hotel.
Warmbier’s death comes at a delicate time in international diplomacy surrounding North Korea. Senior Chinese and American officials are due to meet in Washington this week, and US officials planned to press their counterparts to do more to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear pursuits.
China, North Korea’s main ally, is a strong advocate for negotiations over the North’s nuclear program, and Warmbier’s death seemed unlikely to change that. At a daily news briefing in Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman called the death “really a tragedy” but stopped short of reprimanding North Korea.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said that China would not punish North Korea over a human rights issue. “What makes China take steps is a missile or nuclear test, not the death of an American student,” he said.