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Will Otto Warmbier's Death Force Trump to Act on North Korea?

Sen. McCain and lawmakers called Otto Warmbier's death 'murder.' How will Trump respond to the isolationist country that involved in his death?
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the test of a new-type anti-aircraft guided weapon system organised by the Academy of National Defence Science
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the test of an anti-aircraft guided weapon system organised by the Academy of National Defense Science in this undated photo released on May 28.KCNA via Reuters

The death of American college student Otto Warmbier on Monday — just days after his unexpected return to the United States from a North Korean prison — is certain to galvanize President Donald Trump, experts say.

But whether it will be the catalyst for a major response that could redefine U.S.-North Korean relations remains to be seen.

"The president is going to have to do something — and it's going to have to go well beyond condolences that he gave yesterday and a condemnation of North Korea," said Gordon Chang, a Daily Beast columnist and author of "Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World." "He needs to make clear to North Korea and other regimes that there will be a severe cost for harming an American."

The declaration by Arizona Sen. John McCain and other Washington lawmakers that Warmbier's death constituted "murder" by North Korea will likely force Trump to show how serious he is, Chang added.

On Tuesday, Trump said during a press availability that "it's a disgrace what happened to Otto." He posited that Warmbier's death might have been avoided if he had been brought home sooner — a veiled knock on the Obama administration for failing to bring about his release. The study abroad student was arrested in January 2016 for trying to steal a North Korean propaganda banner from his Pyongyang hotel. He was sentenced to hard labor and remained in custody for 17 months.

"He should have been brought home that same day," Trump said. "The results would have been a lot different."

Related: Three Americans Still Held by North Korea Following Otto Warmbier’s Release

White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the Trump administration will continue to apply economic and political pressure on North Korea, and is counting on China to help "play a greater role" in restraining the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Un. China is North Korea's main ally and trading partner, and the U.S. relies on China for helping to maintain stability in the region.

Trump earlier this year said he would be "honored" to meet with Kim under certain circumstances.

"Clearly we're moving further away, not closer" toward a meeting, Spicer said.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that officials are "still considering our options at this time" in regard to North Korea, and couldn't say whether that might include further sanctions or even going before an international criminal court.

Given the high level of attention, Chang said, Trump and the State Department won't simply let 22-year-old Warmbier's death go without being challenged. One immediate move would be an outright travel ban, which was suggested last week when the House Foreign Affairs Committee questioned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson about supporting such a measure.

“Tourism helps to fund one of the most brutal and despotic regimes in the world.”

"We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea," Tillerson told the committee. "We've not come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it."

Supporters of a House bill known as the North Korea Travel Control Act, which would ban tourist travel to North Korea, urged lawmakers Tuesday to take up the legislation. Over the past decade, at least 17 Americans have been detained for various “hostile acts,” according to the North Korean government.

“Tourism helps to fund one of the most brutal and despotic regimes in the world,” Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said in a statement, adding that there needs to be “meaningful and effective limits on the travel of Americans to this pariah state, and to ban tourist travel entirely.”

Congress would need to approve a full travel ban. However, the secretary of state could unilaterally impose a so-called “geographic travel restriction” if there is an “imminent danger” to the safety of American travelers.

In the aftermath of Warmbier's death, tour groups that visit North Korea have said they are weighing whether to stop allowing Americans to book with them. Young Pioneer Tours, which organized the trip taken by Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, said Tuesday that it will no longer accept Americans.

Related: North Korea Crisis: How Events Have Unfolded Under Trump

It's unclear how many Americans visit North Korea each year, but the New Jersey-based group Koryo Tours told The New York Times last month that about 20 percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 Westerners who visited the country are from the United States.

The U.S. does not have an embassy in the country, relying on Swedish diplomats to help Americans with any consular needs. In addition, the number of Americans who do business in North Korea and the number of Americans who work for nongovernmental organizations there are estimated to be small.

Chang said the State Department could rebuke North Korea for Warmbier's death by including it on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, joining Iran, Sudan and Syria.

North Korea was delisted in 2008 as part of the negotiations by the George W. Bush administration to sway the isolated nation to scale back its nuclear program.

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Another option, Chang said, is tightening economic sanctions further. That would put Kim in a bind as he continues to struggle with a financially depressed nation and his own failures to build up a nuclear and missiles program, he added.

Another unknown is whether Warmbier's death will nudge open the door to the freeing of the other three Americans currently detained in North Korea.

Chang said Trump would be pressed to act on their behalf in order to ensure that they don't befall a similar fate. The North Koreans claimed that Warmbier contracted botulism and fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill, according to his parents.

Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said last week that they found no traces of botulism in his body. But the cause of death remained unclear after Warmbier's family on Tuesday objected to an autopsy.

Warmbier was released on June 13 after Joseph Yun, the State Department's top official on North Korea, flew to Pyongyang with a medical unit. He said he also had contact with the other three Americans and the State Department wants to get them released soon, although no timetable was given.

Related: Otto Warmbier Has Extensive Brain Damage, Doctors Say

Han Tae Song, the North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, said the Americans detained in North Korea have not complained about their conditions and that "they said they were fairly treated."

But Warmbier's deteriorating health during his incarceration highlights the poor conditions that North Korean prisoners routinely face, according to human rights groups.

Jonathan Pollack, a senior analyst on North Korea at the Brookings Institution think tank, called Warmbier's death a "sobering moment." Nonetheless, as compared to the chemical weapons attack that killed more than 100 people and led Trump to launch missiles on a Syrian base in April, the complexities surrounding how to handle North Korea don't call for an immediate strike, he added.

"The problem is you cannot address North Korea in a strategic sense if you simply react to one event," Pollack said. "It will take a level of coherence, discipline and motivation that is frankly rarely achieved in government."

Warmbier's death "also plays into the debate within Trump's administration in how to deal with this issue," he added. "Despite Trump’s own statements, there are very mixed signals that come out of the United States government with how we will proceed with North Korea."