Otto Warmbier, Trump, and the moral price of peace – Washington Examiner
What moral sacrifices should the U.S. be willing to make to secure North Korea’s effective denuclearization?
I ask that question in light of the uproar that has followed President Trump’s equivocation over Otto Warmbier. An American student who was imprisoned in North Korea, Warmbier died shortly after his return to the U.S. in 2017. But where Trump previously condemned Warmbier’s demise as evidence of Kim Jong Un’s barbarous regime, on Thursday the president changed tack. Referring to a discussion with Kim about what happened to Warmbier, Trump said, “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”
I get why that comment greatly upsets some people. As my colleague Becket Adams notes, “Considering the Kim regime maintains an iron grip on all information that comes in and out of North Korea, and the fact that he has a murderous special police who are tasked specifically with keeping him informed of all goings on in the country, Trump’s suggestion that the North Korean despot wasn’t aware of what was happening to Warmbier beggars belief.”
He’s right. Kim Jong Un would have known what happened to Warmbier and would have been able to ensure his better treatment. Trump knows that Kim Jong Un would have known. Yet, while Trump’s words were poorly chosen, I have sympathy for his broader point that just about anything that can bring about North Korea’s denuclearization is worth doing.
The question is, where does the line lay? What sacrifice is too much?
That’s what we have to debate. Some, such as CNN’s Chris Cillizza, appears to believe Warmbier’s new treatment by Trump is too much. He asserts that the “question that has to be asked is, at what cost? How much of our moral principles and standing in the world are we willing to sacrifice to appease a dictator with a horrendous human rights record?”
It’s a legitimate question.
But if the benefit is a denuclearization deal, then the question must be judged against the counterpoint. The counterpoint here is a prospective war with North Korea.
That makes me accept Trump’s words. Because I do not want to see young Americans fight another bloody battle in defense of South Korea, not unless that battle is absolutely necessary. It’s a moral choice. My moral judgment is that such a war would be more “horrendous” than the “horrendous human rights record” of Kim Jong Un.
The history of the last Korean War suggests as much. In his history of the November-December 1950 Battle of Chosin Resevoir, On Desperate Ground, Hampton Sides records the brutal cold that the Marines suffered. “The cold seemed to come with only one upside: it had a cauterizing effect on wounds. Blood from bullet holes or shrapnel tears simply froze to the skin and simply froze to the skin and stopped flowing.”
I do not wish to see this suffering replicated in 2019 or another year yet to come. To prevent it, I am willing to stomach Kim Jong Un’s continued evisceration of his people. Yes, even his murderous brutality towards a young American.
As these negotiations go forward, we should always keep Otto Warmbier and the suffering North Korean people in our memory. But we must also remember Americans like Jesse Brown who died at Chosin in 1950.
The moral choices between war and peace may be clear, but they’re rarely simple.