On January 2, 2016, then-21-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier (now 22) was on a five-day guided tour in North Korea when he was arrested at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. He allegedly stole a North Korean propaganda banner from the Yanggakdo International Hotel on December 30, 2015 to take back to the United States, which the North Korean government called “an act of hostility against the state.” A video was released on March 18, 2016 that purportedly shows Warmbier in the act.
Warmbier said in a statement at his trial that he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could return the banner and that $200,000 would be paid to his mother if he was detained. He said that he took the banner in effort to help his family with financial difficulties and to try to join the Z Society, an organization at the University of Virginia. But this should be viewed with skepticism, as many people who have been detained in North Korea and made a public confession have recanted their statements after being released.
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March by North Korea’s highest court after only a one-hour trial, leading to international condemnation. Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the sentence: “North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, in a statement. President Obama responded with new sanctions against North Korea.
Since his sentencing, veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson has been pushing for Warmbier’s release. As of late, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has also taken up the cause. But there is a case to be made against this effort and in favor of leaving Warmbier to his fate. Let us explore that case.
The Case Against Rescue
First, leaving Warmbier to serve his sentence has propaganda value against North Korea. Difficult though it may be to imagine North Korea in a positive light, there are those who do so, and thus it is necessary to engage them on the propaganda front. Many people are empiricists to the extent of being anti-rational, and thus need a clear example of statist tyranny to convince them that such regimes are a moral evil. His continued captivity provides such an example. At the national level, such actions harm North Korea’s standing among other nations. As Napoleon said, “When the enemy is making a false movement, we must take good care not to interrupt him.”
Second, Warmbier’s captivity will serve as a warning to those who would follow in his footsteps. As long as he remains in a North Korean labor camp, it will be clear to all who would think of traveling to North Korea that a long state-sponsored kidnapping and enslavement may be the result. Once again, there are people who need a current ongoing example to remind them of this.
Third, North Korea has a history of using the detention of foreigners as a means of exerting pressure on its adversaries. It is therefore likely that Warmbier’s release will come at a cost. At the time of this writing, it is too early to say how President Trump will handle such situations, but President Obama has established a dangerous precedent of not only negotiating with terrorists, but doing so incompetently. The Bowe Bergdahl exchange and the Iran nuclear deal both come to mind as transactions in which America offered far too much and received far too little in return. This has established a dangerous precedent that concessions may be obtained from the American government by harming American citizens or interests abroad.
Fourth, negotiating with and providing concessions to North Korea rewards them for bad behavior. Behavior which is subsidized will occur more frequently, so a generous offer made to secure Warmbier’s release will only encourage other malevolent actors to abduct Americans in the hopes of receiving their own hefty ransom. Therefore, those who seek Warmbier’s release may actually be contributing to the victimization of other Americans in the future.
Fifth, Warmbier’s continued imprisonment will send a message that if an American travels abroad to a hostile country and gets into trouble with the regime there, neither the American people nor the American government will save such people from themselves. An essential aspect of liberty is the ability to take one’s own risks, reap one’s own rewards, and suffer one’s own consequences without external interference. Warmbier did the first of these, and now he is doing the last. No one forced Warmbier to travel to North Korea. When he was there, no one forced him to steal a propaganda banner, if that is indeed what happened. He either knew or should have known that such behavior was dangerous and could result in his current predicament.
Mainstream thinkers will likely be protesting that the North Koreans are aggressors who are holding an innocent man captive. They will accuse anyone who advocates abandoning Warmbier of victim blaming, heartlessness, and letting North Korea get away with criminal behavior. Such thinkers should learn to avoid context denial. That the North Koreans are aggressors who are holding an innocent man captive is true, but beside the point. The point is that there is nothing to be done about it which does not have worse long-term consequences than letting Warmbier remain in a North Korean labor camp. Rescuing one man by force is not worth starting a war in which many more innocent people die. Diplomatically negotiating for his release sends the wrong message to others who would capture Americans for their own advancement.
As for victim blaming, there is nothing wrong with it in cases in which the victim really is to blame; i.e. the victim did something stupid in order to become a victim. While Warmbier does not deserve the treatment he is receiving, a rational person would have had every reason to expect it, given North Korea’s history of capturing foreign visitors and using them as bargaining chips to gain concessions from their governments. Furthermore, it is always better to be heartless than to be brainless.
Finally, there is the question of whether the state should block a private effort by the Warmbier family to offer a ransom in exchange for Otto’s release. Again, the theoretical libertarian answer is no but the realpolitik answer is yes. In theory, they should be able to use any means necessary to defend against the aggressors and reclaim their family member. In a better society, they might be able to rally private defense agencies to their side to overthrow the North Korean government and liberate everyone living under it. But because they are not going to subdue the North Korean government by force and ransoming Otto will only encourage rogue states and terrorists to capture more people in the future, it is best to block such attempts.
As terrible as Otto Warmbier’s situation is, leaving him to it is the least of several evils, so it should be done.