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ANALYSIS

Student's death puts Trump back to square one on North Korea

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, smiles at an observation post to watch the launching of Scud missiles in Tongchang-ri in North Pyongan Province, North Korea, on March 6, 2017.

KCNA//KOREA NEWS SERVICE/AP

By ANDY SHARP | Bloomberg | Published: June 20, 2017

The death of a 22-year-old college student in Ohio on Monday has dashed any hopes of a quick detente between the U.S. and North Korea.

Otto Warmbier, who spent more than a year imprisoned in the isolated nation after allegedly stealing a propaganda banner, passed away on Monday after he was returned to the U.S. last week in a coma. President Donald Trump denounced North Korea after hearing the news.

"It's a brutal regime and we'll be able to handle it," Trump said.

The furor in the U.S. over Warmbier's death recalls the raw emotions felt after a chemical weapons attack in Syria killed children, which prompted Trump to fire cruise missiles at Bashar Assad's regime. Yet dropping bombs on Kim Jong Un's nation — an option Trump's administration says is still on the table — is so risky that many analysts see it as implausible.

Warmbier's death is "an outrage even by North Korean standards," said John Delury, an associate professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul. "It does demand something that's beyond the typical response. But what do you do? How do you punish North Korea?"

Trump's administration talked up the threat of war earlier this year, sending aircraft carrier strike groups to the region and holding military exercises with allies Japan and South Korea. In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned that a war would devastate the region.

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Since then, things had appeared to calm down. North Korea has refrained from testing a nuclear device or an intercontinental ballistic missile that could deliver a warhead to North America. In turn, U.S. officials focused more on diplomatic efforts.

In one interview, Trump appeared to empathize with Kim, telling Reuters that taking over North Korea after his father's death was "a very hard thing to do." He told Bloomberg in May that he'd be open to meeting Kim under the right conditions.

The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that U.S. diplomats have already held discussions for more than a year with North Korea's top nuclear negotiator, focused on freeing American prisoners. Warmbier's death undercuts any progress from those meetings.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday that the U.S. holds North Korea accountable for Warmbier's "unjust imprisonment" and demanded the release of three other U.S. captives.

"This makes dealing with Kim Jong Un so toxic," Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, said of Warmbier's death. "If there are any U.S. preconditions for the talks, the No. 1 priority has to be the release of the three other prisoners."

Trump's administration has sought to pressure the 164 nations that have diplomatic ties with North Korea to downgrade or cut them. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told countries last month: "You either support North Korea or you support us."

Mostly, the administration has focused on pressuring China, which provides most of North Korea's food and fuel imports. China has backed the Kim dynasty since the Korean War, in part to keep U.S. troops away from its border.

While China has taken some steps — including halting coal purchases this year after Kim's half-brother was murdered with a chemical weapon in Malaysia — its efforts haven't produced a breakthrough so far. Delury, of Yonsei University, said that Beijing could apply more pressure by suspending tour groups from North Korea until U.S. prisoners are released.

Still, China is unlikely to take any action over Warmbier's death, according to Shi Yuanhua, director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.

"Most likely, China will express concern and regret over the case," Shi said. "It's really misconstrued that China is responsible for everything that happens between Washington and Pyongyang."

The death may make it harder for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took power last month, to convince Trump of the benefits of greater engagement with North Korea. Earlier this month, Moon temporarily halted the installation of a U.S. missile shield pending an environmental impact assessment.

Moon, who will meet Trump at the White House on June 29, condemned North Korea for its treatment of Warmbier, calling it "greatly deplorable." He said he would push for the release of the remaining U.S. prisoners as well as six South Koreans held in the country.

"Maybe this will allow Trump and Moon to find some common ground on the North Korea issue," said Choi Kang, vice president at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. "This issue won't take us to a military option. There is no possibility of it."

Bloomberg's Ting Shi and Hooyeon Kim contributed.

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