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Otto Warmbier and the Travesty of Negotiating with Tyranny

otto warmbier

Image: Kyodo via AP Images

In January 2016, Otto Warmbier, a twenty-two-year-old American student, was accused of stealing a propaganda poster while on a tour in North Korea, and sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. The Obama administration responded by attempting to negotiate with the totalitarian regime for Warmbier’s release. That, predictably, did not work.

Instead, Warmbier suffered eighteen months in a North Korean prison. Shortly after he was released and returned home in a vegetative state, he died due to massive brain damage.

Setting aside the fact that no one should travel to a dictatorship such as North Korea, and setting aside the many ways in which the United States and other Western nations have enabled the North Korean regime to become the massive menace it is today, the lesson here is the same lesson that America has failed to learn for decades: You do not negotiate with dictators, tyrants, or terrorists.

Negotiation is proper only when the parties involved share basic principles, goals, values. It is not proper when one of the parties has illegitimately used physical force against the other and is seeking to “benefit” from that force. To negotiate in such a case is to condone the force and to set a precedent inviting more of it. Further, negotiating takes precious time that could mean further harm or even death to the victim.

Just as it would be obscene to negotiate with a known child rapist who kidnaps a little girl, so too it is obscene to negotiate with a murderous dictatorship that kidnaps an American student. The rapist and the dictatorship have initiated force and have no rights. The kidnapped parties have a right to their lives and liberty—and thus to be freed immediately and unharmed. And the government responsible for protecting their rights has a moral responsibility to do everything in its power to ensure that they are.

America did not need to try and see whether negotiations with North Korea would “work.” We could have known in advance that they wouldn’t. And Warmbier could be home, safe, and sound with his family today—if our government had thought in terms of principles.

As Peter Schwartz writes in The Foreign Policy of Self-Interest regarding a similar situation:

The paradigm here is President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous reaction in 1904 to the kidnapping of an American, Ion Perdicaris, in Morocco, by pirates led by Ahmed er Raisuli. Roosevelt’s terse communiqué to the government of Morocco read: “We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” There was no diplomatic “engagement,” only the deployment of our naval fleet to Tangier—whereupon Perdicaris was quickly freed.

Warmbier could have been quickly freed too. Instead, he was tortured to death.

Can we all please learn the lesson now?

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