The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The intensifying strangeness of U.S.-North Korea relations

Placeholder while article actions load

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.

North Korea has been a major irritant in the first few months of the Trump administration. The pariah state, ruled by youthful despot Kim Jong Un, has tested a series of missiles and repeatedly rattled its saber at its neighbors and the United States. An editorial in state media this week threatened to hit New York City with an intercontinental ballistic missile. The White House has responded at various times with tough talk and warnings that Washington's "strategic patience" with Pyongyang is now at an end.

Things took an interesting turn on Tuesday, when news broke that an American college student who had been detained in North Korea for 17 months was being medically evacuated from the country. Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, was arrested while on a visit to North Korea on Dec. 31, 2015. Authorities accused him of attempting to steal a piece of propaganda art from a hotel and later sentenced him to 15 years in prison for "hostile acts against the state." In addition to Warmbier, three other U.S. nationals remain in North Korean custody on various allegations of espionage.

Warmbier was not seen in public after his March 2016 sentencing. Swedish diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in Pyongyang, were able to check in on Warmbier recently and reported that the young American was in a coma after being stricken with what appeared to be a case of botulism. This, according to my colleagues' reporting, was followed by an urgent meeting between North Korean and State Department officials to organize Warmbier's release on humanitarian grounds. Pyongyang assented, and preparations were made to bring Warmbier home.

According to my colleagues, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called President Trump at 8:35 a.m. Tuesday to inform him that Warmbier was on an airplane en route to the United States. "Take care of Otto," Trump is said to have instructed his top diplomat.

"Our son is coming home," Fred Warmbier said to The Washington Post on Tuesday morning after his son was  evacuated. "At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight."

On the same day that Warmbier left North Korea, another American decided to show up. Former NBA star Dennis Rodman made his fifth visit to the country, telling reporters before his arrival that he hoped to "open a door" between Kim and the rest of the world. None of Rodman's previous missions to Pyongyang have achieved much. In 2013, ahead of his first trip, I wrote a tipsheet for Rodman on the vile record of the North Korean regime. It's safe to say it stands up half-a-decade later.

"I'm just here to see some friends and have a good time," Rodman said to reporters. (He's actually doing this trip as a surreal publicity stunt for a company called PotCoin that creates digital currency for cannabis users, as my colleague Amanda Erickson explained.)

But Rodman added that he believed Trump is "pretty much happy with the fact that I'm over here trying to accomplish something that we both need."

My colleagues Anna Fifield and Karen DeYoung reported that there was no coordination between Rodman and the White House: "Officials involved in securing Warmbier’s release told The Post that it had nothing to do with Rodman’s trip to Pyongyang, calling it a 'bizarre coincidence' that might have been a deliberate ploy from North Korea to distract from Warmbier’s condition."

"Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with the release of Mr. Warmbier," said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman. "I’ve not spoken with Dennis Rodman. Let me reiterate this: We strongly, strongly suggest that Americans do not go to North Korea."

If nothing else, the confluence of these two events highlights the enduring strangeness of North Korea as an actor on the international stage. It is home to arguably the world's most closed society. Its opaque regime expresses its will through vast totalitarian spectacles and brazen, clandestine assassinations. As a result, any chance to peek beneath the curtain — even if provided by an opportunistic, B-list celebrity — leads to pronounced media scrutiny and fascination.

It remains to be seen how Trump's at-times-aggressive line with Pyongyang plays out. Earlier this year, as we discussed in this space, there were fears that Trump was participating in a dangerous escalation of tensions in the region. On Tuesday, the White House announced that recently elected South Korean President Moon Jae-in would visit Washington at the end of the month. Moon — a liberal who has historically worked for rapprochement, rather than confrontation, with the North — was critical of some aspects of U.S. policy in the region ahead of his election.

Critics of Trump, meanwhile, also like to point to the eerie echoes of the Kim regime in the U.S. president's own behavior. On Monday, Trump was pilloried by the media as he presided over a Cabinet meeting that ended with each of his lieutenants sitting around the table taking turns to praise and thank the president.

"We thank you for the opportunity and blessing you've given us to serve your agenda and the American people," said Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who reports suggest may be at risk of losing his job amid internal palace squabbles.

"It was very North Korean," noted one pundit on CNN.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.