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Expert: Detained American's release could be sign of better relations with North Korea

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Watch | Foreign policy experts weigh in on U.S. and North Korean relations after the release of Otto Warmbier.

The 22-year-old college student Otto Warmbier returned to the U.S. with significant brain damage Tuesday after being detained in North Korea for the past 18 months. 

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March 2016, after supposedly stealing a poster from his hotel while on a tour in the country. Since his trial, nobody in the U.S. had been updated on his status, until last week. 

This is the latest event in escalated tensions between the two countries. With no official diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea, communication happens through back-channel discussions, but according to Jim Walsh, senior research associate at MIT’s Security Studies Program, that could change.

“I think probably the biggest incoming out of this negotiation or his release was really the fact that a US official sat down and negotiated with a North Korean official and arrived at an agreement," Walsh said


Walsh is referring to the June 6th meeting between Ambassador Joseph Yun and North Korean United Nations Mission Ambassador Pak Kil-yon where the U.S. had learned of Warmbier's grave condition and secured his release, Time reported. 

This meeting comes just one month after Yun also met with North Korean diplomats, American academics, and former U.S.  government officials in Oslo, Norway for a "track-two" meeting, which can be defined as unofficial diplomacy. 

"The difference today that hasn’t been true for the past 10 years is that there’s a chance to get this on a diplomatic track and point it in a positive direction. That has not been true in a long long time," Walsh said. 


President Donald Trump told Bloomberg News in May that he would be willing to consider meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un under the right circumstances, which would be the first time a sitting U.S. president met with a North Korean dictator. 

Soon after Trump's remarks, Choe Son Hui, director-general of the North America bureau chief of North Korea's Foreign Ministry, said North Korea would also be interested in talking to the U.S. if the conditions were right, CNN reported. 

But the U.S. has also canceled talks with the dictatorship this earlier year, according to The New York Times. U.S. and North Korean officials had planned to meet in New York in March, but the meeting was canceled soon after Kim's brother was suspected to be assassinated and North Korea held another missile test. 

Bob Turner is the co-founder of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, and he sees the release of Warmbier as having a different significance, a call to action. 

“This has gone on long enough, and maybe Otto’s sacrifice can be used to motivate the world community to show North Korea their behavior will not be tolerated," Turner said. 

The Trump administration has seemed to advertise they are taking a tougher stance on North Korea than previous administrations. 

Vice President Mike Pence announced during his visit to  South Korea, "The era of strategic patience is over."

While Trump tweeted in April, "North Korea is looking for trouble. If China decides to help, that would be great. I not, we will solve the problem without them," then signed it "U.S.A."

But Walsh says actions speak louder than words. 

“You might here all the tough talk, but those of us watch these issues actually see what’s happening underneath, and what’s happening underneath is there’s a possibility for diplomacy," he said. 


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