- By Emily TamkinEmily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. She writes for FP’s The Cable, a real-time take on the news in Washington and the wider world. She has been at FP since the fall of 2016, before which she was an associate editor at New America, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. She has a B.A. in Russian literature from Columbia University, an M.Phil. in Russian and East European studies from the University of Oxford, and studied Soviet dissidence in archival centers in Moscow, Tbilisi, and, on a Fulbright, in Bremen — all of which means that at FP, she writes when she can on Russia and Central and Eastern Europe.
North Korea on Tuesday released U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier, who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, Secretary of Rex Tillerson said. Warmbier had tried to snag a propaganda banner on his final night in Pyongyang, and ended up being detained for 17 months.
But it’s not a triumphant departure: He is being medically evacuated in a coma, his parents told the Washington Post. Warmbier has apparently been in a coma since shortly after his public trial in March of last year. Warmbier’s parents said they were told he came down with a case of botulism after the trial, was given a sleeping pill, and never woke up.
The State Department said it secured his release at the direction of President Donald Trump.
On Monday, during the administration’s first cabinet meeting — a bizarre, North Korean-style pageant of loyalty pledges and recitations of praise for the leader — Tillerson laid down a marker for friend and foe alike.
“Clearly we are engaged with our allies to ensure that they know where our common interests are. Our expectation is that America will continue to be a leader. But they must do more. They must meet their obligations…. And for our adversaries, we are engaging and will engage. But they have to know that we are engaging from a position of strength.”
And North Korea is clearly at the top of the agenda for many in the administration. On Monday, Defense Secretary James Mattis told Congress that he considers North Korea to be the No. 1 threat facing the Pentagon. (That’s primarily due to advances in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.)
Warmbier wasn’t the only American held there; there are still three others. Tillerson told Congress on Tuesday, “We continue our discussions with the North Korean regime” regarding those detainees.
And there’s actually another American in North Korea: Dennis Rodman arrived on Tuesday for his fifth visit to Pyongyang. It is as yet unclear whether he is going at the behest of the White House, though what is known that the trip is sponsored by PotCoin, which is a digital currency for the marijuana industry, because, honestly, at this point, why not.
Trump and Rodman and North Korea go all the way back to 2014, when Trump tweeted:
Dennis Rodman was either drunk or on drugs (delusional) when he said I wanted to go to North Korea with him. Glad I fired him on Apprentice!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2014
Trump fired Rodman from The Celebrity Apprentice, the reality show the president used to host, because Rodman was unable to spell the name of the Slovenian-born future first lady, Melania.
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