Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student released last week after 17 months detention in North Korea for attempting to steal a propaganda poster, died June 19. Reports say Warmbier was in a persistent vegetative state (which doctors now call "unresponsive wakefulness") when he was released from North Korea, but the exact cause has not yet been determined. Pyongyang said Warmbier slipped into a coma not long after his conviction after falling ill with botulism and taking a sleeping pill. U.S. reports have downplayed the North Korean story, but have also noted that American doctors found no signs of beatings, suggesting instead Warmbier's condition was likely triggered by a loss of oxygen, perhaps due to cardiac arrest or an infection or illness.
Warmbier's case is unusual. Although North Korea is no luxury resort for foreign prisoners, Pyongyang understands the political importance of its American detainees, and has generally avoided extreme physical abuse in recent years. It's entirely likely that North Korean officials hoped Warmbier would recover from his coma, which is why they neither reported his initial condition nor released him at an earlier date. Warmbier's death will add another layer of political complexity to U.S.-North Korean relations. The U.S. State Department already discourages Americans from traveling to North Korea, and it's possible that the State Department or Congress will seek to curtail further tourism. The official U.S. government statement responding to Warmbier's death decried the "brutality" of the North Korean government, suggesting little intent to ease up on the hard-line policy against Pyongyang.
Warmbier's death comes just ahead of a June 21 U.S.-China dialogue on North Korea, and shortly before South Korean President Moon Jae In travels to the United States to meet with President Donald Trump. Washington will point to the Warmbier case as further justification for its harder approach, something Beijing has been cautious of and Seoul has sought to temper. Seoul is seeking a dual-track policy toward Pyongyang, coupling pressure with calls for dialogue, and Beijing is also seeking to reinitiate regional talks on North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.
Given Pyongyang's accelerated missile testing schedule, and its perception that a viable nuclear deterrent is the only thing that can preserve its security, it's unlikely the North Korean leaders will offer up any major concessions. For the United States, the concern is that North Korea may ultimately be able to reach the U.S. mainland with a nuclear-capable missile. North Korea remains 18-36 months from this goal, by most assessments, meaning that Seoul and Beijing have perhaps a year to try and persuade Pyongyang to change its behavior before the United States is forced to come to the decision-making point about military action.