American Detained In North Korea

News of Otto Warmbier started to surface over the last few days.  Mr. Warmbier, a 21 year old University of Virginia student, was detained in North Korea several weeks ago as he was leaving the country with his travel group.  Warmbier’s detainment marks yet another tough period of negotiation throughout the State Department, which has no arm within North Korea.  So, why exactly was Otto Warmbier detained?  And what does this mean for the United States going forward?  These two questions will be explored throughout this short post.  (In a later investigative analysis, I will try to show the different stories of the many Americans who have been detained within the reclusive country.)

Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as a regular tourist.  Young Pioneer Tours, the agency which Warmbier utilized to travel into North Korea, said Warmbier had behaved like a traditional tourist – taking pictures, traveling (with his guides) and enjoying his time in North Korea (Washington Post).  However, there may have been an incident at the Yanggakdo hotel that facilitated his capture by the North Korean authorities.

Reuters first reported the incident in the hotel.   However, no concrete details of the hotel incident have surfaced, except that the KCNA reported that Warmbier had committed an act of hostility against the regime.  The KCNA report also said Warmbier is currently under investigation as he remains in Pyongyang.  Young Pioneer Tours said Warmbier wanted to keep the incident to himself and no one was aware of the actual incident (Reuters; Washington Post).

Thought the details of the hotel incident may never be known, the details of his detainment are known.  On his way through customs, Warmbier was taken aside by an airport official and sat in an immigration office.  Charlotte Guttridge was the only outside witness to Warmbier’s detainment (Reuters).  When Warmbier was stopped at customs, she attempted to stay behind and assist.  However, she was already through customs and unable to leave the plane.  Upon takeoff, she was told that Warmbier had been taken to a hospital (Reuters).  Gareth Johnson, the founder and CEO of Young Pioneer Tours, opted to remain in North Korea after news of Warmbier detention reached him, only departing the country after he realized little would come of his presence in the country.

So, now that I have outlined the details of the detainment, time to explore the elephant in the room.  What does the most recent detainment mean for North Korea – U.S. relations and how will the United States Proceed?  The second half of the question is easier to explain.  Obviously, the United States will work to garner the release of Otto Warmbier, but without a United States embassy, or any form of official entity in Pyongyang, Sweeden will bear the brunt.  Sweeden for years has been the go between for Washington D.C. and Pyongyang, acting as the mediating party for cases such as Otto’s case.  In fact, Sweeden was one of the first entities notified, along with the State Department and the Warmbier family, by Young Pioneer Tours after the detainment.

The first half of the question above is a little more complicated.  North Korea has used the detainment of American citizens before to gain political concessions.  Each person is arrested, most under grounds that can be argued as illegal in North Korea, but then become political hostages.  Otto’s case has a high probability to become one of these cases.  First, the United States is currently looking to adopt more economic sanctions on North Korea.  Warmbier will be used to divert the conversation and the make sure sanctions are not too harmful to the regime.  Warmbier will be used, unfortunetly, as a way to get concessions from the international community, as there is no other was to guarantee his release.

Warmbier’s detainment has resurfaced many different conversations.  The main one is highlighting the risk in traveling to North Korea.  Though you are under constant surveillance, the chance of detainment is ever present.  Time released an article online warning of such possibilities, saying people should not add North Korea to their bucket lists.  While I second the article in highlighting the warnings of traveling to North Korea, there are several reasons why I would say to remove North Korea travel from your bucket list is a little too much.  Many Americans do travel to North Korea, with very few being detained.  So, if you do want to travel to North Korea, what should you do?  One, travel with a reputable agency, examples include Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours.  Two, no matter how alone you think you are, please adhere to all North Korean laws and regulations.  Before you leave, do your homework and figure out exactly what is allowed and what is prohibited in North Korea.  I do think that travel to North Korea, by those willing to take the risks, is probably one of the most rewarding and interesting journeys anyone can take.


Update on the Nuclear Test

So, it has been almost a week since the nuclear test in North Korea.  The issue, however, has started to see diminished coverage in the foreign media, as it has been overshadowed by issues like ISIL/ISIS, gun-control – in America spefically – international terror attacks throughout the world and elections.  In the Korean peninsula, the test has also started to see diminished front page coverage, though many news sources are still covering the test and the fallout.  First, I will give an update for everyone on what is happening in Korea and then point out the symbolism of such a trend in media coverage.

First, the update.  South Korea has responded to the nuclear test, as it resumed loud speaker broadcasts at the DMZ.  South Korea’s broadcasts are critical of Kim Jung-un and also consist of a few select K-Pop songs.  The broadcasts are being resumed after they ceased in August, after a rise in tension along the DMZ.  North Korea responded to the resumption of the loudspeakers by placing loudspeakers on their side of the border.  Broadcasts from the north are critical of Park Guen-hae and the South Korean government in general.  The coverage of North Korea’s broadcasts, however, is low and they are seaming to only drown out the broadcasts from South Korea.

America has also responded, with a physical response.  A few days ago, a B-52 bomber flew low over South Korea.  Its flight was meant to be a show of power by the United States.  Though this was a few days ago, North Korea has yet to respond to the flight, possibly due to it lack of ability to respond such a show of power.  However, a North Korean drone was sent back to North Korea after warning shots were fired by South Korea as it crossed the 38th parallel.  These trends highlight the heightened tension that exists on the peninsula, yet there has not been any diplomatic response as of yet.

Without a quick diplomatic response, North Korea has won.  The inability for the international community to put in place a solution to the nuclear test quickly shows the unprepared nature of the international community, which Kim Jung-un will use for his benefit.  Lack of a quick response do not mean that the international community is not responding, however.  Nations – South Korea, Japan, the United States, Russia and China – are all working to put in place a diplomatic solution with teeth.  Each nation has been analyzing what the test means for their intentions and trying to cooperate with the international community in order to put in place a diplomatic response that will assist everyone.  So far, Japan, South Korea and the United States have entered talks, though we can expect that nations, such as China and Russia, will enter the discussion soon.

What does the trend in media coverage show us?  It shows that life after a North Korean nuclear test has returned to normal.  We were worried for two days, with North Korea making the front page internationally, but now, life will resume as normal for billions and billions of people throughout the world.  The international community showed such response to first three nuclear tests.  After this fourth test, which was most likely of an advanced nuclear weapon, the world must stand up and show that life will not return to normal.  North Korea will always act up if we constantly show them as a small pebble in our shoe.  If we make containing North Korea, by establishing a long term goal for the peninsula, then we can show Kim that the regime is under constant surveillance and we are able to respond to their provocations quickly, damaging the Kim regime, without escalating tension on the peninsula.  The need for a long term goal, from every nation in the world, can not be understated.  A long term containment and unification goals are indispensable when attempting to negotiate with or contain North Korea.

P.S. – If you want to see any of the many articles that I used to gather information on the nuclear test, comment and I will post which articles and information you are interested in.

Book review on North Korea

I just finished the Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot by Blaine Harden and posted a review of the book on my other blog.  Go check it out if you are interested in No Kum Sok’s story, North Korean history or aviation history.  It was worth the read and highly recommended book.



From time to time I will post reviews of books on North Korea and South Korea on this blog, so keep checking in if your interested.  However, that is my book blog, so literally everything that I wish to review will be posted there.  Fair warning.

North Korea Nuclear Test #4

(I apologize in advance if any of these arguments are not entirely called out.  This post has been weighing on my mind for the past two days and I have done my best with the information that is available at the time of posting.  As information becomes known, I will attempt to update the post with more information.)

The world was shocked throughout the day as the news started to surface.  At 10am (North Korean local time) seismic activity was reported as coming from the area where North Korea tested 3 other nuclear weapons.  The world, including China, was taken off guard and had to respond quickly to what seemed to be another nuclear test.  I have been reluctant in posting my analysis of this event, as it presents a wide plethora of security issues throughout the world.  This post will delve into the details – as they are known at the time of posting – of the test and will shed some light on what the possible fallout from the test will be internationally.

At 10am World Earthquake Tracker reported seismic activity registering a 5.1 on the Richter scale, with an epicenter in Punggye-ri, North Korea, the site of the three previous nuclear tests.  This was followed by a special announcement from North Korean state television at 12:30pm.  The anchor of the program read a statement which said that North Korea has tested its first ever hydrogen bomb.  The world was quick to condemn the test, with several nations calling the test a provocation.  The White House, about an hour after the special announcement, released a statement saying “We are continuing to monitor the situation in close coordination with our regional partners.  We cannot confirm these claims at this time.”  The National Security Spokesman Ned Price then continued by saying “We will continue to protect our allies in the region, including the Republic of Korea, and will respond appropriately to any and all North Korean provocations.”  The White House was not the only nation to condemn the test, as Japan, Australia, South Korea and even China have come out condemning the test.  The United Nations Security Council is also set to conduct an emergency meeting at 11am Wednesday (New York local time) in order to discuss the issue.  So what does this test mean for the region and the world?  The test has presented the world with a major event to pressure to North Korea.  In the long term, however, the test may not see any productive change to the security issues in the region.

This post will be structured differently than any other post I have made so far, as there are several points of view to consider.  I will structure this post in the format that will allow me to address the issue from several lenses, by addressing each nation’s view on North Korea’s nuclear program.  I will address the statements and implications of this most recent test for the nations that were involved in the Six Party talks – North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, and China.  I will then address the skepticism that has risen throughout the world.  I am excluding Russia, as I do not know too much about Russian politics.

North Korea

Obviously, the country that conducted the nuclear test has a huge stake in the outcome of the test.  The nuclear program in North Korea is no different.  The test today, in North Korean domestic affairs has several implications.  It also has many different implications to the foreign affairs of North Korea.

Domestically, Kim Jung-un has been working to consolidate power within his domain.  There is no lack of significance of the date of the test, as Kim Jung-un’s birthday is two days from today.  This test will be used as boasting tool throughout the celebration of Kim’s birthday, furthering his ability to control the political structure of North Korea.  Another way that this will showcase the power of Kim, domestically, is that this test shows that Kim has the ability to do grave damage throughout the world.  This test, no matter what happens, will be heralded inside the country.  The test comes in the same year that North Korea will convene its 7th Worker’s Party Congress in May.  The test, as I stated in an earlier post, will be brought out again during the congress, as it shows the strength of the nuclear program in North Korea.  Whether it is confirmed that the test was indeed a hydrogen bomb, the test will assist in strengthening the power of Kim, domestically, and will show the population the strength of the program.  The test will be, domestically, utilized by Kim, as he celebrates his birthday in a couple days and at the Worker’s Party Congress in May, as a symbol of his power.  It will be used to assist Kim in consolidating power and squashing some of the skepticism that has started to rise throughout his rule.  The population of North Korea is already showing the effect that such a move will have, as the population has unified in praising the test.  In the long term this test may unify society behind Kim Jung-un, thus ushering in a solid third-generation rule of the Kim dynasty.

Internationally, the test shows North Korea’s defiance.  This test comes at a time when inter-Korean relations seemed to be on the positive side, as family reunions occurred a few months ago and talks between the two nations have been happening.  Relations with China, while they have been rocky, has also been moving forward, as China has been attempting to resolve tension with North Korea.  So what will this test grant North Korea internationally?  The answer is simple.  This test gives Kim media attention and world wide attention.  The test also showcases the defiance of North Korea to the outside world, aligning the test with the Juche philosophy of self-reliance.  Internationally, it does not show too much change in North Korean foreign policy, except for one aspect.  China was not given advance warning of the test.  This showcases the distance that has grown between the two nations.

Internationally, however, North Korea has no intent in using the weapon unless provoked.  The most recent test is geared more to the creation of a defense weapon.  The biggest fear, internationally, is the proliferation of the technology.  This test may also strengthen the resolve of other regimes, which could lead to further nuclear tests throughout the world.  The fear internationally should not be on the usage of the bomb.  The discussion should be targeted on the issue of the size and type of the bomb, as well as on the possibility of proliferation of the technology throughout the world, to enemies of the United States and allies throughout the world.

In North Korea, the test serves more of a domestic importance, as had many other nuclear tests.  With Kim Jung-un being unable to consolidate power within his own nation, this test will provide a symbol of power for Kim’ birthday and the Worker’s Party Congress.  Internationally, the test shows several signs of a continued path of defiance of foreign sanctions and policy.  The long-term effects of the test will be stronger internally, which means the Kim regime may have a stronger, more unified power base than before.

South Korea

South Korea will see the brunt of the threat, geographically.  The test shows a failed policy in Seoul.  However, the government is fearful, as North Korea’s constant barrage of threats are towards South Korea.  The military in Seoul is on high alert and Park Geun-hae, the president has promised swift and appropriate retaliation for the test.  This sounds fine, but one should recall the mine incident in August.  The escalation of the incident fell on the South Korean side, as well as on the North Korean side.  A response like the one from that incident may cause more harm than good.  The missile test will also put Seoul on edge, as it shows the advancement of North Korea’s nuclear program.  With Seoul constantly in the crosshairs of North Korean provocations, the test also shows the constant threat that is North Korea.  The response to the showboating and testing must be cautious, however, in order to maintain peace and stability on the peninsula, without having any escalation and possible violence.

This will present an interesting opportunity for South Korea, as it has been on the forefront of media reporting for the event.  The NIS will become the main source of information.  South Korea must be as strong, if not stronger, in its condemnation of the test.  However, its strength must be used more carefully that any other nation, as any quick escalation would cause billions and billions of dollars and millions and millions of lives for South Korea.  This will also start the year out on a tough area for inter-Korean relations.  South Korea must avoid a rise in tensions throughout the crisis, but it must not let Pyongyang get away with continuing its nuclear program.  South Korea will be the epicenter of the world for a few moments, as the world turns to South Korea’s response for inspiration.  Carefully using a strong response will show the world that Pyongyang can be stood up to.

The United States

The United States will be one of the nations that the world is turning towards for leadership throughout this crisis.  This will place a lot of pressure on the United States to step up and strengthen the current sanctions.  The current sanctions regime in place is in response to past three nuclear tests – 2006, 2009, 2013 – and the Sony hack – 2015.  This regime will be strengthened, but the question that will remain is to what avail will the stronger sanctions change North Korea’s behavior.

This test places even more pressure on the United States, as it is a clear example of the failure that has been strategic patience.  Not only has strategic patience been a failure in the fact that it has fostered a method for North Korea to develop a nuclear weapon.  This strategy has also granted North Korea media attention based off its bad behavior.  North Korea has been driven to gain the attention of the United States.  Currently, this means that North Korea has to go to extremes to gain attention of the world, which, in Kim Jung-un’s eyes, meant a nuclear test.

The United States has been thrown into the spotlight again.  As quoted above, the White House is not ready to accept North Korea as a nuclear state.  This defiance is what is driving North Korea to continue its pursuit, though this strong man routine may also inspire nations to pursue a similar technique.  The United States will be using its strength carefully to inspire the leaders of its allies overseas, such as South Korea and Japan.  The United Staes must also pressure China in changing its policy towards North Korea.  However, change in such policy is unlikely – see China section for elaboration on Chinese policy towards North Korea.

The United States must be strong in this crisis, which it has done in the face of other nuclear tests from the Kim regime.  This will mean that the United States must take the lead throughout its allies in the region.  Since the military power of the United States is one of the keys of deterrence, it must maintain its possession, if not strengthen it.  However, this must be done carefully, as the North may see a rise in US troops in South Korea as a provocation.  Careful strength must be utilized by the United States at this moment.


Japan is seeing the test a breach in security and a violation of in place restrictions on nuclear testing.  Japan is also seeing a target on its back, as it has become a part of the criticism from North Korea – for the “comfort women” deal that was reached recently.  Japan is also feeling uneasy, as this is not the first time that North Korea has shown distaste in Japan.  North Korea still has not forgiven Japan for the occupation of Korea.  This has led to many attempts to undermine the Japanese society – from kidnapping Japanese citizens, to firing missiles over Japan and to having fiery rhetoric towards Japan – by North Korea.  Shinzo Abe was the first leader to announce his condemnation of the test, showing his stance on North Korea.  The Japanese camp will look to work with parties that are more interested in the North – the United States, South Korea and China – in order to contain Pyongyang.

On a more interesting note, the test will put forth an opportunity for South Korea and Japan to unite and strengthen political ties.  Hopefully, this will have such an effect, as the two nations have seen a thawing in relations.  This also will present the two nations with another focus, outside of historical debates, that may see them unite and boost cooperation between them.


China has been the crux of North Korea’s existence since the Korean War.  Food aid, both documented and undocumented, has abundantly crossed over the Tumen and Yalu rivers over the past 70 years.  This has placed intense international pressure on China when it comes to issues dealing with North Korea.

China was reluctant to issue a response after the initial announcement of the test.  The response, however, was the strongest condemnation.  The Chinese government reported, through the statement, that advance notice was not given before the test.  Advance warning had also been neglected for the 2013 test, which was also met with strong condemnation from China.  China’s responses have not gone past rhetoric.

Despite showing strong condemnation for North Korea’s nuclear program, China is unwilling to give up on the small nation.  It criticism runs amuck when the conversation turns towards sanctions and measures that could possibly spell disaster for North Korea.  This stems from its viewing North Korea as a buffer state.  For China, the worst possible scenario would be a collapse of the regime and the emergence of a strong, capitalist economy on its border.  For this reason, China has not given up North Korea, and despite having harsh criticism of the nation’s policy, it constantly works to steer the conversation away from the potential collapse of the Kim regime.

What will change because of this test?  I am skeptical that anything will change, long term.  As stated in the above paragraph, China needs North Korea to act as a buffer state.  Sending aid into North Korea acts to maintain the survivability of the regime, though China is careful to leave most of it undocumented.  China, as it has in the past, will look to condemn the test, but when it comes to containment, they will stop short of doing anything that has the possibility to cause regime collapse.  By taking this course of action, China has undermined the effort of the sanctions regime implemented by the United Nations.


After the test, several sources started to question the statement from North Korea which said that it had tested a hydrogen bomb.  This skepticism started from the South Korean NIS and has spread throughout the world, with several other nations declaring similar findings.  Though the test may not have been a full hydrogen bomb, there is no reason to exclude the possibility that it was an attempt to add hydrogen isotope, in a small amount, to their currently existing technology.

Such remarks are made based off primary air tests and the seismological data.  In 2013, when North Korea tested its most powerful weapon, the reading was a 4.9 on the Richter scale.  The test on January 6 registered a 4.8-5.2, which shows that it is of similar strength to the one tested in 2013.  The initial air data also points away from the hydrogen bomb theory.  Though we may never know exactly what type of bomb was tested a couple days ago, it is unlikely that it is a full hydrogen bomb.


The test on January 6, 2016 was marked by quick condemnation from around the world.  China, the United States, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Australia were among the first and most damning condemnations.  A United Nations Security Council emergency meeting was called the day after the test, which also resulted in a strong, international condemnation.  Though this places a lot of international pressure on North Korea, it is unlikely to alter its current path of nuclear advancement.

This test also shows the defiance of international mandate that North Korea is constantly working to carry out.  With this test, North Korea has also shown that it is not just seeking to have a few bombs in its back pocket, but a full arsenal.  Kim Jung-un, however, is seeking to push the program further as a deterrent.  He has no intention of using them as an offensive weapon.  If Kim switched his rhetoric and uses them offensively, he will be out of power quickly.  This is something that Kim knows and restrains him from pulling the trigger first.

The 2016 test will run a course similar to the previous tests.  North Korea tests a weapon; the world is quick to condemn the test; sanctions and other methods are put in place in an attempt to contain North Korea.  These are all short-term events.  In the long run, the status quo will return to pre-test levels, with the addition of maybe one or two more sanctions, limiting the success of the new and previous sanctions.  Media coverage will also follow a similar trend, outside of the peninsula.  World newspapers will cover the test; then slowly cease to publish coverage of the nation.  Short term trends, such as the response and media coverage of the tests are what is hindering the success of the sanctions and other methods of possible containment.  They are designed to contain for a short period of time, not for the long haul.  In order to see any change in North Korea, there must be a long term plan in place.  Without such a plan, how can the world seek to keep North Korea in check.

The Korean Peninsula in 2016

The end of the year had some of the most interesting stories of the year coming from the Korean peninsula.  First, in November, Kim Jung-un stated that North Korea possessed a hydrogen bomb.  Well he more alluded to the possibility, but still the remark was an important one and one that should not be overlooked.  Then, in December, reports started to surface saying that North Korea was constructing a new tunnel at the Punggye-ri location, where the country has conducted its three previous tests.  A follow up report by 38 North – which is where I first found out about this story – showed that there has been continued construction on the tunnel throughout December.  In mid December, Kim Jung-us’s state band – Monrangbong Band – was dispatched to China to perform.  China, however, apurptly canceled the groups schedule, forcing them to return back to North Korea without performing.  This was the second time China had snubbed North Korea, showing tension in the relationship between the two nations.  Also, Kim Yang-gon, the official in charge of inter-Korean relations in North Korea died in a car accident.  There is speculation that the accident was planned, but if the accident was planned or not, the death of Kim Yang-gon symbolizes a shift in inter-Korean relations, hopefully for the better.  (Present on Kim’s funeral committee is Choe Ryong-hae, who was purged earlier in the year, but is now coming back into public focus.)  Finally, in December, South Korea and Japan reached a landmark deal for the settlement of the “comfort women” issue.  The deal has been praised by outsiders and politicians as a way for the two nations to reconcile there differences and move forward as allies.  The surviving victims and China, however, have been adamant about their disapproval for the deal.  As you can see, the end of the year brought with it several stories.  I apologize for the lack of South Korea in the wrap up, I will try better next time.

What does this mean going forward for the two Koreas.  Well, the first is that both will be having to deal with issues relating to foreign policy.  North Korea will have to attempt to better its alliance with China and improve relations with South Korea in order to maintain the current status quo.  The most important of those two goals will be maintaining a good relationship with China, so that North Korea can continue to receive aid and a backing on the international political stage.  For South Korea, the most important foreign policy issue will also be a domestic issue.  South Korea’s relationship with Japan has the potential to blossom into a positive advantage for both countries.  The Korean government, however, has a difficult task on the home front, getting people to accept the deal with Japan.  While difficult, the issue that South Korea is facing is that the deal will settle the issue once and for all, instead of making it an important stepping stone in improving relations.  Also, the deal may drive China closer to North Korea, as the Chinese will want to see some sort of deal for the Chinese women that were victimized by the Japanese brothels.

Domestic challenges will exist throughout the year as well.  In North Korea Kim will have to maintain his iron grip on power, through any means possible.  With more and more people showing interest in South Korean dramas and with more outside information coming into the country, this will be a difficult task for Kim.  (I would like to say I do not enjoy Kim being in power, but at the moment, the world is not prepared for a North Korean collapse.  Also, I am trying to highlight domestic issues from their standpoint, not from the opinion of the author.)  This is a yearly concern for North Korea, but more so now in the information age.

South Korea will face a huge domestic issue.  Park has provided little to the people, in the form of domestic policy, over the last two years.  Major protests have shown the South Korean dislike in the way she has handled the domestic policy realm, with the most recent protests coming after the announcement that South Korea will move to state authored history textbooks.  Park has also met serious backlash from the agreement with Japan, which only added fuel to the fire.  Park Geun-hae’s biggest challenge, domestically, in 2016 will be showing that her government is serving the needs of the people, not her own wants.  Though Park will be out of office in 2018, with an election happening in 2017, she must look to give the people faith in the conservative party.  The people will show just how much faith they have in the conservative party, post Park, in 2017.  This new election may see the rise of a second Roo Mu-hyun or Kim Dae-jung, but honestly, it is way too early for predictions, so I will save my predictions for my post in a year or so.

The Korean peninsula in 2016 is wrought with challenges.  Domestically, North and South Korea need to solidify their rule.  Kim Jung-un must look to control the influx of information, as well as start showing more authority throughout North Korea.  Park Geun-hae must recover from two domestic failures and show that she is prepared to provide for her population, not for herself in South Korea.  Internationally, North Korea needs to reconcile with China and improve relations with there neighbor.  South Korea is facing an uphill battle with Japan and must seek a future plan for Seoul-Toyko relations after the agreement.  Finally, the two Koreas must look to improve inter-Korean relations for 2016.  This year will be an interesting year on the peninsula, hopefully for the better.