Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American college student who arrived back in the United States after 17 months as a prisoner in North Korea, died just six days after his return, causing shock and anger at home. He was arrested for trying to steal a propaganda poster during a tour in North Korea and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier was healthy when he first visited the country. What he did was nothing more than a misdemeanor, but it was treated as a serious offense, which eventually led to his death. The death of Otto Warmbier revealed once again the true nature of the Pyongyang regime, which indeed deserves condemnation for its brutality.
There are currently 10 foreigners detained in North Korea: three Americans, six South Koreans, and one Canadian. The so-called “hostage diplomacy” of North Korea is mostly aimed at the United States and South Korea. Of the 23 foreigners held since 1996, 21 have been Americans or South Koreans.
North Korea has been relying on hostage diplomacy for a long time. In January 1968, North Korea captured the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo and detained 82 crew members for a year before their release. In 1994, North Korea shot down a U.S. helicopter flying near the demilitarized zone between North Korea and South Korea and held an American pilot. In 2009, they abducted two American female journalists in the border area of North Korea and China, who were released only after former U.S. President Bill Clinton arrived in the country.
South Koreans are also not safe from the threat of detention and abduction by North Korea. Since the Korean Armistice Agreement was signed in 1952 and until 1989, the North has kidnapped a countless number of innocent South Korean fishermen. In 1969, a civilian South Korean airliner was hijacked by the North, which then released only 39 of the 50 crew members and passengers. In 1978, the North Koreans kidnapped Sin Sang-ok, a famous South Korean film director, and his wife and actress Choe Eun-hui, which again frightened the world.
Through hostage diplomacy, North Korea has successfully put the brakes on global pressure while keeping channels for dialogue open and gaining the upper hand in negotiations. The country may now use the maneuver as a means of preventing a preemptive attack by the United States under President Donald Trump took office.
How should the world respond to North Korea’s hostage diplomacy? The typical approach to terrorist groups, which is making efforts to negotiate, will not be enough. South Korea and the United States, the two major targets of North Korea’s hostage diplomacy, should enhance cooperation and coordination in their response to Pyongyang’s hostage diplomacy, although leaders in the North prefer individual contact. During the South Korea-U.S. summit meeting held on June 30, the two leaders agreed on the importance of dialogue in addressing the North Korean nuclear issue. An effort for dialogue is also required to resolve the issue of North Korea’s illegal detention of foreigners. A priority should be put on the resumption of dialogue between South Korea and North Korea, which has been at a standstill, and the United States should help create favorable conditions for it.
If the two Koreas resume dialogue, they could, for example, try to hold Red Cross talks on the occasion of the National Liberation Day of Korea or the Chuseok Holiday celebrated in both Koreas, where they could discuss the detainee issue as part of a humanitarian agenda that includes a family reunion event. The issue could also be placed on the official agenda of bilateral talks. The resumption of dialogue between South Korea and North Korea would also help accelerate the reopening of channels for negotiation between North Korea and the United States. On the other hand, additional efforts should be made to make China and Russia cooperate to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, as they are close allies to the reclusive country.
To seek a more fundamental solution, however, North Korea’s hostage diplomacy should be highlighted as a global issue and international cooperation led by the United Nations should be strengthened to respond to it. The International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. The Convention, however, addresses only hostage-taking by terrorist groups, so it does not apply to hostage-taking by a state like the Pyongyang regime. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said during his term that state terrorism should be sanctioned in the same context as other acts of terrorism. His remarks have not been supported by actions, however. Practical countermeasures against North Korea’s hostage diplomacy should be prepared at the UN level.
Meanwhile, concerted international efforts are also required to pressure North Korea to engage in dialogue. Such efforts include sending North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Human rights groups have been clamoring for Kim’s referral to the ICC based on human rights violations in North Korea. If North Korea’s detention of foreigners is added to the reasons for his referral, the Pyongyang regime will be put under greater pressure. Cooperation from the UN is critical here, however. According to the Rome Statute under which the ICC was established, the ICC is only effective for state parties. As North Korea is not among them, it is practically difficult to send Kim to the ICC for prosecution. This would, however, be possible if the UN Security Council resolves to request the sending of North Korea to the ICC for investigation and trial. There are historical precedents. Sudan and Libya, non-state parties to the ICC, were investigated and judged by the ICC after a special resolution was passed by the UN Security Council.
Another action that can be taken through coordinated efforts is the enhancement of a secondary boycott. In addition to the UN sanctions against the country over its repeated nuclear and missile provocations, sanctions can be imposed on third-party companies, banks, and others that do business with North Korea, which would further isolate the regime and lead to a deeper economic crisis in the country.
Some might say that tourists should act carefully and try not to be taken hostage, but this is not a fundamental solution. North Korea can always come up with reasons and justifications for its detention of foreigners. Therefore, efforts to secure the release of the hostages in North Korea should be based on concerted international cooperation. So far, countries have been making individual contact with North Korea to address the issue, which is exactly what the Pyongyang regime wants and will only further encourage its hostage diplomacy. To avoid such a situation, it is necessary to bring up the detainee issue at a global level and take the two-track approach of “dialogue and pressure” through international cooperation led by the UN.
Lee Min-yong (Ph.D. in International politics, University of Maryland) is a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University and the chief adviser of the Sookmyung Research Institute of Global Governance in Seoul, South Korea.