North Korea often sends detained foreigners to a special facility near Pyongyang to indoctrinate them with "proper" ideas about the country North Korea. The first American to be sent there was evangelical missionary Kenneth Bae, who was charged with planning to overthrow the regime and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
On his first day at the facility, Bae ate for lunch noodles with a few bits of pickled vegetables. He said dinner that night was a small portion of rice and two small fish. In spite of the meager diet, he still had to do hard labor ever day tilling the soil and transporting rocks. He ended up suffering from malnutrition and lost 27 kg until he required medical attention.
The facilities are strictly controlled. Among the 10 rules for foreign detainees, the first is to absolutely obey the orders of prison officers, and the third is to never talk back. Three armed prison officers stood watch over Bae when he toiled. He said he prayed that he would be released "not in 15 years, but in 15 days."
North Korea then uses the absolute desperation of the detainees for a kind of hostage diplomacy. About a month after Bae was detained, someone identifying himself as "supreme prosecutor" came to visit him. "Your government seems to have no interest in you. You'd better write a letter to your family telling them to get their act together." That was when Bae realized that he had become a pawn. He was eventually released when former director of U.S. national intelligence James Clapper was sent to Pyongyang as a special envoy. Bae had been held for 735 days.
North Korea has a long track record of using hostages to get what it wants, and the gains have so far outweighed the losses. A key example is the crew of the U.S. Navy spy ship Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea in 1968. After 11 months' detention and wrangling with Washington, Pyongyang managed to arrange a secret meeting with U.S. officials at the border truce village of Panmunjom and even got America to use the official name, Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
In 2009, North Korea detained two U.S. journalists but freed them after former U.S. President Bill Clinton visited the North to negotiate their release. The next year, the North detained another American citizen, who was released when former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang.
Now Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in January of last year for trying to steal a propaganda poster, was freed on Tuesday. As usual, Warmbier was released only after Joseph Yun, the special representative for North Korea policy at the U.S. State Department, visited Pyongyang. The trouble is that Warmbier has been in a coma for 17 months, and he was medivacked out of the country on a stretcher with his head shaven and a tube protruding from his nose.
North Korea claimed he fell into a coma because he developed the rare bacterial condition botulism and took a sleeping pill, after which he never woke up again. In fact, he had suffered severe brain injuries, presumably because he was beaten up by brutal North Korean guards.
And now Americans are seething with anger. To start with, no other country in the world sentences a young man to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a poster. But North Korea also executes people who fall foul of the regime with anti-aircraft guns and burns their remains with flame throwers. This time, it may have gone too far. Its treatment of this young American man will not go unpunished.
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