Amid all the spin and hope and fear-mongering encircling the Trump-Kim summit, there appears to be one tangible part of the president’s foreign strategy that’s set in stone: securing the return of American prisoners.
Tuesday’s meeting in Singapore occurred one year to the day since the release of Otto Warmbier and, at the post-summit presser, the president let it be known. “Without Otto this would not have happened,” Trump said. “Something happened from that day, it was a terrible thing. It was brutal. But a lot of people started to focus on what was going on including North Korea. I really think that Otto is someone who did not die in vain. I told this to his parents. A special young man and I have to say special parents, special people. Otto did not die in vain. He had a lot to do with us being here today.”
Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student from Cincinnati, was detained in 2016 after allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel during an ill-advised trip to North Korea. He was imprisoned for over 500 days before the Trump administration brokered his return. Despite his repatriation, Warmbier arrived in a vegetative state and with extensive brain damage. He died on June 19, 2017.
In response to Trump’s comments Tuesday, Warmbier’s parents, who have filed a wrongful-death suit against North Korea, released a statement through their lawyer that shows support and appreciation for the president’s words. “We … miss [Otto],” it reads. “Hopefully something positive can come of this.”
Though it’s admittedly odd and paradoxical that Trump praise the very man responsible for Warmbier’s death—recall that Trump repeatedly, and rather flippantly, lambasted Kim Jong Un ’s “rogue nation” long before the summit, sometimes with outright threats—his decision to prioritize and publicize the Warmbier family’s hardship is a course of action that stands in direct opposition to that of his predecessor, Barack Obama, whose administration’s policy was generally to keep these sorts of hostage situations, and the negotiations therein, under wraps. Though many of these situations did not directly involve North Korea, their secrecy often came at a high cost to the captive’s parents, not to the mention the captives themselves.
It’s also a major gamble for Trump, whose bluster and grandstanding could boomerang wildly. And yet, if the horrible death of a young man from Cincinnati somehow ameliorated the diplomatic relations between the two nations, while effectively swaying public opinion by adding a human necessity to the vital task of disarming North Korea, then perhaps Trump will be correct in his assertion that Warmbier did not die in vain. And perhaps, as a result, Warmbier’s plight—which some may rightfully call murder—will have been one that sparked the denuclearization of a torturous isolated regime, potentially saving millions of lives. And that’s a narrative worth supporting.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.