Otto Warmbier was laid to rest June 22 by his loving family in their town outside of Cincinnati, nine days after he was brought home in a coma after 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea. The North Korean government described him as a prisoner of war, so by their own definition, his death is their absolute responsibility, pursuant to the Geneva Conventions. That the North Korean government kept him in an unresponsive state without proper medical assistance constitutes a crime in terms of international law and flouts common decency.
The blame is theirs. The lesson for us is that America’s hostage negotiation strategy is broken.
I’ve helped rescue hostages from around the world and from North Korea, specifically. In 1994, I negotiated the return of downed Army helicopter pilot from North Korea and the remains of his co-pilot. In 1996, I helped bring American Evan Hunziker back from North Korea. I, and the team at my center, worked for 15 months to try to gain Otto’s release, including a visit to Pyongyang in September.
To bring these cases to a resolution, we often work on three parallel tracks: identifying opportunities to create leverage; engaging directly with captors to ascertain what it might take to secure hostages’ release; and working with the families of those taken hostage, who often find themselves in need of guidance. Working on all three tracks remains viable, but Otto’s case shows that it’s time for a paradigm shift.
First, we have to recognize that time is no longer neutral. In past instances, all that mattered was working toward an outcome, no matter how long it might take. But urgency must be the new norm if we’re to have a chance at curtailing the physical and mental abuse that prisoners can face, particularly when dealing with unpredictable actor. In the year-plus since Otto was detained, Kim Jong Un contravened a litany of humanitarian norms regarding treatment of hostages. The regime still hasn’t provided a believable explanation for Otto’s coma, and why they failed to disclose his condition to the family or diplomatic proxies in the country.
But timing is only part of the problem. Previous hostage negotiations have had success largely because outside actors have been effective in pressuring their client states. Maybe North Korea doesn’t have an incentive to appease America, but China, which works with both countries and fears the collapse of the North Korean state, does. Otto’s case, though, underscores the reality that the final stages of negotiations between sovereign states often need to be undertaken by the parties themselves — here, the governments of the United States and North Korea.
Yet despite the clear need for governments to resolve these cases bilaterally, the U.S. has no clear policy on how to handle instances in which Americans are held as collateral by foreign governments. It’s not that the U.S. hasn’t tried to improve its overall approach. In the final years of his administration, President Barack Obama made a concerted effort to rethink how the government treats hostage cases, primarily in circumstances where Americans are held by terrorist organizations. The creation of the Hostage Recovery Fusion Cell was a step in the right direction. It’s meant to encourage agencies and departments to share relevant information among all participating actors in securing the release of prisoners held by terrorist groups, and exists to provide channels to keep families informed on the progress of their relatives’ cases.
But that’s not enough. Families who have engaged with the HRFC have expressed frustration at the lack of information-sharing — something the HRFC was ultimately supposed to fix. Other families who have hired private external negotiators have been stymied by strict rules regarding the sharing of information with outside parties working to create the conditions necessary for a deal to be reached.
Yet we know coordinated private diplomacy is often critical. Unconstrained by traditional diplomatic choreography, private diplomacy leverages preexisting personal relations and trust that can lead to the sharing of information and creative flexibility, something with which government struggles. To try to bring Otto home, for example, representatives from my center met more than 20 times with North Korean officials. The information gathered was critical. Coordinating and sharing these efforts between government and private diplomacy can unleash a set of tools largely ignored, and in some cases eschewed, to date. For example, a small gesture of recognition — a note delivered privately — from the United States indicating that it would see Otto’s release as a humanitarian gesture, could have helped bring him home earlier: private diplomacy working hand-in-hand with government.
Yet for all the shortcomings of U.S. hostage policy, President Trump has yielded one clear success with the release of Aya Hijazi, who was held by the Egyptian government until shortly after the president’s White House meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. Trump deserves credit here, but his administration can’t rely on this sort of leader-to-leader diplomacy as a primary approach, as it would incentivize governments to take Americans captive, not to mention forcing the president to shift focus from important geostrategic issues.
To secure the release of the other three U.S. citizens being held in North Korea, Joshua Holt in Venezuela, Siamak Namazi in Iran and Austin Tice in Syria, to name a few, the administration must first treat these cases with urgency rather than patience, and second, convene a contact group, including private diplomacy actors across the political and private spectrums, to identify case-by-case strategies and levers. Personal relations are assets and they do not exclusively lie inside one administration.