- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Trump administration showed little sign of changing its strategy toward North Korea on Tuesday, despite pressure from Capitol Hill for a muscular action following the death of American student Otto F. Warmbier.

State Department sources said the case of Mr. Warmbier, the 22-year-old University Virginia student who died Monday of wounds suffered during his detention in North Korean, has pumped urgency into the administration’s consideration of a ban on travel by U.S. citizens to the isolated nation.

But there was no indication that such a ban, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been considering since April, is imminent. And the White House suggested it has no immediate plan beyond proceeding with existing sanctions against North Korea and continuing to push on China to contain Pyongyang.

“We will continue to apply economic and political pressure and try to continue to work with our allies,” said White House spokesman Sean Spicer. “We’ve had, I think, positive movement on China We’ll continue to work with them and others to put the appropriate pressure on North Korea.”

He added that the threat posed by Pyongyang will take center stage when Mr. Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis hold talks with their Chinese counterparts in Washington on Wednesday — the first of a slate of U.S.-China diplomatic and security meetings that were set in motion after Mr. Trump met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April.

Mr. Trump, however, sent mixed signals Tuesday on China’s role when he tweeted, “While I greatly appreciate the efforts of President Xi & China to help with North Korea, it has not worked out. At least I know China tried!”

With regard to Mr. Warmbier, Mr. Trump said in the Oval Office that the young man’s death after detention in North Korea was “a total disgrace.”

“That should never ever be allowed to happen,” said Mr. Trump, who then added — in an apparent rebuke of his predecessor, President Obama — that if Mr. Warmbier had been “brought home sooner, I think the result would have been a lot different.”

Mr. Trump’s comments came against a backdrop of frustration on Capitol Hill over the White House’s handling of the latest flash point with North Korea, despite the administration’s claim that the era of “strategic patience” — a reference to the long-held U.S. policy of trying to pressure Pyongyang through sanctions and diplomacy — is over.

“The United States cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said on Monday night, after news of Mr. Warmbier’s death made international headlines.

The 22-year-old died Monday in his home state of Ohio, his family said, just days after being released in a coma by North Korea. He had been visiting North Korea on a tour group when he was detained, sentenced to 15 years hard labor for subversion, and held for more than 17 months.

Outrage over the case grew last week when U.S. doctors assessed that Mr. Warmbier had sustained a catastrophic brain injury during his captivity — and frustrations reached a boiling point following his death on Monday.

House Foreign Relations Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said the U.S. must ban tourist travel to North Korea on U.S. passports, claiming that “travel propaganda lures far too many people” to the isolated nation.

North Korea, added Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, represents “a clear national security threat that requires action.”

U.S. officials, meanwhile, have expressed frustration that three other American citizens — businessman Kim Dong-chul, and academics Kim Hak-song and Kim Sang-duk, also known as “Tony Kim” — are being held by North Korea.

In a bizarre twist, former American basketball star Dennis Rodman traveled last week for a fifth time to North Korea, where he reportedly gifted President Trump’s book, “Trump: The Art of the Deal” to the nation’s leader Kim Jong-un.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that officials were “continuing to evaluate” whether to impose a restriction on private travel by Americans to North Korea.

“The secretary has the authority to do it, he just has not come to a conclusion about how this would potentially work,” she said. “We have a great deal of resolve to try to handle the situation and try to hold North Korea responsible.”

Short of a total travel ban, Mr. McCain said Tuesday that prospective American travelers complete a form declaring they won’t hold the U.S. government responsible for what happens if they go to North Korea.

“If people are that stupid that they still want to go to that country, then at least they assume the responsibility for their welfare,” the senator said.

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