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Truly sensitive timing

June 21,2017
The death of a 22-year American college student upon returning home in a pitiable state after spending almost a year and a half in captivity in North Korea will likely weigh heavily on future inter-Korean relations. Otto Warmbier was stopped from leaving Pyongyang on Jan. 2, 2016 for trying to steal a propaganda banner from his hotel while traveling in the country as part of a tour group. In March, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion. Very suddenly, he was allowed to return home on June 13.

Americans are enraged by North Korea’s harsh treatment of the young man. U.S. President Donald Trump condemned the brutality of the North Korean regime. In a separate statement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made it clear that Washington holds North Korea accountable for Warmbier’s “unjust imprisonment” and demanded the release of three other Americans still detained in the country.

Warmbier’s parents claimed their son had suffered “awful, torturous mistreatment” by North Koreans.

The issue will hang heavily over the upcoming summit between liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-In and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump as the two administrations have seen fissures in policy towards North Korea grown even before the two men meet. Trump, in his so-called maximum-pressure-and-engagement approach, has been doing his best to mount greater pressure on Pyongyang via Beijing to make it succumb to international wishes. Moon, on the other hand, wants to restore South Korea’s role in the complicated relationship and solve the nuclear threat through an improved inter-Korea relationship.

Seoul’s stalling of the full deployment of the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) system has irked Washington, which takes the issue as a rejection of the alliance. Moon Chung-in, a special presidential advisor on security and diplomatic affairs, confounded Washington by suggesting that the two states should discuss scaling down U.S. strategic assets and joint military exercises to make Pyongyang suspend its nuclear activities.

President Moon sent a letter expressing condolences to the Warmbier family. Yet the new administration remains committed to its positions and plans to elaborate on the need for improved inter-Korean relations during the summit with Trump.

Seoul needs flexibility in its diplomacy. Trump could feel insulted if the South Korean president argues for more engagement of Pyongyang at such a sensitive time. What is urgent is for North Korea to immediately release the six South Koreans and three Americans it continues to detain.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 21, Page 30