Rex Tillerson announced on Tuesday that North Korea has released Otto Warmbier, an American who was serving a 15 year jail sentence somewhere in the bowels of the hermit kingdom. The announcement came just hours after Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea for an unexpected trip, as reported last night. Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from Cincinnati, was sentenced in March after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in a statement. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.”
What he really meant is that Dennis Rodman’s unique style of “diplomacy” appears to have achieved what neither Tillerson himself, nor the previous administration had been capable of.
Tillerson’s statement gave no other details and made no mention of Rodman’s visit. But it noted that the State Department is continuing “to have discussions” with North Korea about the release of other American citizens who are jailed there. The statement said the department would have no further comment on Warmbier, citing privacy concerns.
While Rodman had said he did not plan to raise the fate of the Americans while he was in North Korea, the timing is oddly coincidental and is likely a gesture of good will by Kim toward one of his favorite basketball players.
Previously, the U.S. government had condemned Warmbier’s sentence and accused North Korea of using such American detainees as political pawns. The court held that Warmbier had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”
North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to take control of the Korean Peninsula.
In a tearful statement made before his trial, Warmbier told a gathering of reporters in Pyongyang he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could get a propaganda banner and was also told that if he was detained and didn’t return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.
To be sure, this is not the first release obtained from the Kim regime: in November 2014, U.S. spy chief James Clapper went to Pyongyang to bring home Matthew Miller, who had ripped up his visa when entering the country and was serving a six-year sentence on an espionage charge, and Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been sentenced to 15 years for alleged anti-government activities. Jeffrey Fowle, another U.S. tourist from Ohio detained for six months at about the same time as Miller, was released just before that and sent home on a U.S. government plane. Fowle left a Bible in a local club hoping a North Korean would find it, which is considered a criminal offense in North Korea.
But in this case, all prop go to Rodman, who as we concluded last night, “if he manages to persuade Kim to end his nuclear program – something no other US politicians has achieved – it will mark quite a dramatic departure in style and substance to US foreign policy.” He still has a few days left on his trip.
Incidentally, Rodman’s trip to North Korea is being sponsored by a digital currency for weed.