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Nordkorea - US-Student Otto Warmbier
Image: picture alliance/dpa/MAXPPP

Ex-US envoy for North Korea: Release detained US citizens

Michael Knigge
June 23, 2017

The former US special envoy for North Korea charged with handling the Warmbier file tells DW he has "no idea" whether Pyongyang's denial of torturing him is accurate. He also details what was unusual about the case.


DW: In its first reaction to the death of American student Otto Warmbier, North Korea denied torturing him during his detention and said it treated him according to domestic and international law. You officially handled the Warmbier case until the end of your tenure in January. Based on your experience is that statement accurate?

Robert King: I have no idea of knowing. The North Koreans have not been transparent in the process. They are generally not terribly transparent in dealing with American citizens. The one thing we do know based on our experience with American citizens over the last 10 years or so is that the North Koreans tend to be fairly cautious in taking reasonably good care of the health of these people.

This doesn't mean that they don't use physiological pressure or intimidation and various other things in terms of the interrogations that they carry out. But recently, over the last 10 years or so, we don't have any experience with Americans who were physically abused. So my sense is North Koreans tend to be careful, particularly with Americans in not physically abusing them.

In this case something happened. We don't know what it was. Medical personnel in Cincinnati who dealt with Otto Warmbier after he returned to the United States did a number of examinations and indicated that they had not found evidence of broken bones or damage to the skull or those kinds of things that would be associated with physical brutality. What we don't know is what caused the lack of oxygen getting to the brain that for various reasons might explain that. And there is no indication from the North Koreans as to what caused it.

How would you describe your dealings or negotiations with North Korea over Otto Warmbier's release? Was there anything different from other cases you had handled previously?

No. In the past when American citizens have been detained, they have been interrogated, and this would take a month or two months. And during the time they are interrogated they are not allowed access to the Swedish mission in North Korea. The Swedes handle issues involving American citizens in North Korea, because we do not have an embassy there. Usually the Swedes are allowed to see the person after that. They don't get frequent access, but in most cases they have been given access periodically afterward.

It is unusual in the case of Otto Warmbier that they did not allow access after his trial. And that apparently is because whatever happened, happened probably in April.

During your tenure as the State Department's special envoy for North Korean human rights issues from 2009 to 2017, how did the human rights situation evolve in North Korea?

The one thing that is probably the most significant change is that North Korea has come under increasing pressure. The United Nations Human Rights Council appointed a special rapporteur in 2004 and there have been reports annually to the Human Rights Council and to the General Assembly of the United Nations reporting on conditions in North Korea. They have been, as far as we know, very complete reports and they have been very critical of North Korea. In 2013 a commission of inquiry was created by the UN, which conducted a yearlong investigation and produced a very comprehensive and very damning report on human rights conditions in North Korea. That report was approved by the Human Rights Council and also in the General Assembly. And following the criticisms of that report, the UN Security Council has taken up North Korean human rights issues.

So the North Koreans have gotten a lot more attention and they have also gotten a lot more criticism on their human rights record. I think there is some pressure felt in Pyongyang to deal with it. The normal reaction is not to deal with the root problem and eliminate the problem of human rights abuse. It is more to cover it up or to paper over what's been going on.

USA Robert King, ehemaliger Nordkorea-Gesandter
Robert King, former US special envoy for North KoreaImage: U.S. Department of State

What would you say is the most critical, but also most overlooked, human rights violation in North Korea?

It is hard to single out one and say this is the most important consideration. The real problem is that there is a culture of impunity for human rights violations there. People are abused, mistreated and when a North Korean is sent to jail, in most cases there is little information on why they are being arrested. In many cases the individuals are never told why. In addition, innocent people are thrown into jail. When somebody is arrested, his or her spouse is also put in jail, parents of the individual are put in prison and children are also put in prison. So it is a system that is basically horribly abusive and it is across the board. It is all aspects of human rights.

The death of Otto Warmbier shows that foreign governments have limited influence to help their own citizens traveling to North Korea. If they have little leverage to help their own citizens there, what does this say about the international community's influence to improve the even much more dire human rights violations that you just described that are endured by North Koreans themselves? 

Just because there isn't immediate progress when human rights violations are identified and criticized and pressure is put on countries for doing that doesn't mean that you stop. Sometimes it takes a long time for change to take place and we need to continue to press the North Koreans for making progress on these horrible violations.

There are currently still three US nationals and one Canadian citizen being held in North Korea. Would you urge North Korea to release those?

Absolutely. There is no indication of crimes that they have committed. The United States government has requested repeatedly that these American citizens that are currently being detained be released. Absolutely, they should be released. There is no indication of what the problems are or why they were arrested. And based on experience in the past, the kinds of things for which people are arrested are the kinds of things that would never result in an arrest in other countries around the world.

It is still legal for foreigners of most countries to travel to North Korea. But would you advise people not to go there?

The State Department issues travel advisories. We do it for most countries - for example things like ‘Watch out for petty crime in Berlin.' But in the case of North Korea, the message is: "Do not travel to North Korea.' The warning then catalogs what the issues and problems are with traveling to North Korea. The North Koreans encourage people to travel because it's a source of income for the regime, and so they are very anxious to have people travel there. But we have tried to discourage.

There is consideration right now by a number of members of Congress of some kind of action to limit travel to North Korea. It's difficult in the United States because we generally feel that people should make choices on their own. But in the sense of North Korea there is a sense for reasons of safety and so forth that American citizens should not go there. It is also a problem because travel is a source of funding for North Korea, which will be used to further its efforts on nuclear weapons and missiles, and this is something that is not helpful as well. So I think there will be some serious examination of that possibility fairly soon.    

Robert King served as special envoy for North Korea human rights issues at the US State Department from 2009 to January 2017, a position for which he was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the US Senate.  

The interview was conducted by Michael Knigge.


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