The heartbreaking death of the 22-year old Virginia University student, Otto Warmbier, has re-sparked the controversy around diplomatic relations with the North Korean dictatorship and has put Trump in the spotlight once again.

What happened to Otto Warmbier?


Warmbier had traveled to North Korea with a tourist group as part of his study abroad program. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being convicted of stealing a propaganda poster, in what many would argue was a sham trial. After being imprisoned, there was no word from or about Warmbier until just last week, after 17 months, when he was returned to the United States in a coma, unable to respond or speak – suffering from extensive brain damage.

From a medical standpoint, it’s still uncertain what actually happened to Warmbier. North Korean officials claimed that he had contracted botulism, taken a sleeping pill, and fallen into a coma, but U.S. doctors have yet to find evidence of botulism. Unfortunately, Warmbier died six days after his return to the U.S.

His family issued the following statement after his death:

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”

What viable actions can the U.S. take?

The threat of military action, although seemingly the most powerful weapon of retaliation, could prove disastrous for foreign relations, particularly for countries in North Korea’s close vicinity, like South Korea and Japan. Coupled with North Korea’s claimed missile and nuclear power, aggressive military movements against the country could have unprecedented implications.

Diplomatically, North Korea has been repeatedly condemned and strongly pressured to veer from its history of lack of respect for human rights and democracy. The next best means of reproach would be economic sanctions, of which there are plenty already currently imposed.

There is growing pressure now on China to weaken their historically close ties with North Korea, with the threat of sanctions on Chinese companies currently involved in business with North Korea looming and becoming more viable of an option with every passing day.

“We continue to urge China to exert its unique leverage as North Korea’s largest trading partner, including by fully implementing all the U.N. Security Council sanctions,” Susan Thornton, acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said. 

How is Trump handling the situation?

Trump had told the press pool in the Oval Office:

“It’s a disgrace what happened to Otto. It’s a total disgrace what happened to Otto. It should never, ever be allowed to happen. And frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the results would have been a lot different.

Thus far, Trump has been fairly insistent on working with China to address the growing problem of North Korea, but his tweets over the past few days suggest that he may be growing towards a more strict approach towards China to increase pressure on North Korea.

The following tweet sparked a fair bit of discourse among both political analysts as well as members of Trump’s own administration, who suggested the tweet shouldn’t be analyzed in too much detail:

While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!

The steps Trump takes from here on out could go on to determine the future of North Korea’s relations with the democratic world.

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