Making good policy requires sober analysis. Emotionally-charged words devoid of any real meaning do a disservice to the pursuit of sound policy.
North Korea represses 25 million people. Its government has killed hundreds of thousands of the people who live there by policy-induced starvation, assassinations, and death camps. It is building nuclear weapons, and just a few months ago it brazenly assassinated the exiled brother of the dear dictator on foreign soil. But now it is the death of an American tourist that has caused National Review to call for kicking North Korea out of the United Nations.
Calling the death of Otto Warmbier an “act of war,” National Review calls for ratcheting up pressure on the rouge regime to punishing levels. That’s all well and good–North Korean tyranny deserves to be resisted–but why did it take the death of an American to inspire such passion?
To be sure, National Review mentions the horrible crimes North Korea commits against Koreans and others in its article. But it is only now that they said the U.S. should emphatically step up its game: “North Korea’s brazen murder of an American citizen is reason to reevaluate.”
North Korea’s ongoing campaign of torturing refugees wasn’t reason to reevalutate? Its sinking of the Cheonam wasn’t reason to reevaluate? Its continued threats to turn Seoul into a sea of fire?
The best case explanation is that National Review and other outlets are using the case of Warmbier as a jumping off point to address larger problems. Many of the solutions National Review raises–stepping up U.S.-led sanctions, barring North Korean elites access to U.S. banks, putting it back on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list–are sound ideas that should have been talked about and implemented anyway.
The problem is if attention to a single outrage overshadows the underlying problems or if the public forgets about the problems next week. There are three Americans (all Korean-Americans, it can be said) still known to be held hostage in North Korea, including Kim Dong Chul, who has been held two and a half months longer than Warmbier. There are other Americans suspected of being kidnapped by Korea; David Sneddon disappeared in China under suspicious circumstances in 2004 and is said by a Japanese reporter to be held in North Korea. Trump (and National Review) hasn’t mentioned any of them, but he did blame Obama for Warmbier being held too long. There is also one Canadian still in detention and many Japanese and South Koreans who have been kidnapped decades ago. Focusing on the latest big news story and then forgetting could risk turning magazines into the equivalent of Twitter.
That’s what’s happening in some of the articles, as the words of left-wing Twitter nut cases are cherry-picked to create narratives. Michelle Malkin, citing the same three or four liberal bloggers and fired Comedy Central hosts, wrote, “Before his death this week, the Left had already murdered his reputation.”
Suddenly half a dozen people’s stupidly-expressed opinions become a truth about “the Left” as a whole, rather than about Larry Wilmore, HuffPo blogger La Shea, and teen magazine Affinity.
If there is “privilege” here, it’s in the response. It’s the idea that Korea, Canada, and Japan only now should join America in pursuing an unworkable plan to kick North Korea out of the United Nations. It’s American privilege, maybe even white American privilege, if you must, to think that the live of this one American is more important in motivating action than those of our allies, including the over 20 million people who live in range of North Korean artillery.
It might be understandable from a nationalistic point of view why a conservative American magazine would naturally feel more outrage about violations against an American citizen than those against Canadians and Japanese. But righteous outrage is not how to conduct successful foreign policy. The U.S. must work with other countries. If Americans feel particular outrage about Warmbier’s death, why wouldn’t Koreans be just as outraged about Seo Jeong-wu, Moon Gwang-wuk, Kim Chi-baek, and Bae Bok-chul, four Koreans killed in 2010 by North Korean artillery, the later two fully civilians?
South Korea’s new liberal president is cautiously in favor of pursuing dialogue with the North. Even if I and about 50 percent of Korea’s citizens didn’t quite agree with his viewpoint, his position now must be factored into successful strategizing. And he’s not going to change his position on something like deployment of the THAAD missile defense system, which he has put on hold for review, because of Warmbier. (U.S. can move forward with unilateral sanctions and Treasury sanctions and should have already been strongly consider doing so.)
Making good policy requires sober analysis. Emotionally-charged words devoid of any real meaning do a disservice to the pursuit of sound policy. “Act of war” is such an emotionally-charged-but-meaningless phrase, the way National Review throws it around. “In a previous era, the death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, at the hands of the regime in North Korea likely would have been considered an act of war.”
What is an “act of war”? How would the U.S. respond? Notably, National Review didn’t include any recommendation for a preemptive strike or any kind of military action whatsoever in its article. That makes it seem like even National Review doesn’t buy its own opening-line claim that this should be treated as an act of war.
If America did go to war with North Korea, South Korea would suffer the most damage so we could avenge.
Feature photo taken by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo, by Department of Defense.