On January 2, 2016, then-21-year-old University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier (now 22) was on a five-day guided tour in North Korea when he was arrested at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. He allegedly stole a North Korean propaganda banner from the Yanggakdo International Hotel on December 30, 2015 to take back to the United States, which the North Korean government called “an act of hostility against the state.” A video was released on March 18, 2016 that purportedly shows Warmbier in the act.

Warmbier said in a statement at his trial that he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could return the banner and that $200,000 would be paid to his mother if he was detained. He said that he took the banner in effort to help his family with financial difficulties and to try to join the Z Society, an organization at the University of Virginia. But this should be viewed with skepticism, as many people who have been detained in North Korea and made a public confession have recanted their statements after being released.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in March by North Korea’s highest court after only a one-hour trial, leading to international condemnation. Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the sentence: “North Korea’s sentencing of Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor for a college-style prank is outrageous and shocking,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, in a statement. President Obama responded with new sanctions against North Korea.

Since his sentencing, veteran US diplomat Bill Richardson has been pushing for Warmbier’s release. As of late, Fox News host Tucker Carlson has also taken up the cause. But there is a case to be made against this effort and in favor of leaving Warmbier to his fate. Let us explore that case.

The Case Against Rescue

First, leaving Warmbier to serve his sentence has propaganda value against North Korea. Difficult though it may be to imagine North Korea in a positive light, there are those who do so, and thus it is necessary to engage them on the propaganda front. Many people are empiricists to the extent of being anti-rational, and thus need a clear example of statist tyranny to convince them that such regimes are a moral evil. His continued captivity provides such an example. At the national level, such actions harm North Korea’s standing among other nations. As Napoleon said, “When the enemy is making a false movement, we must take good care not to interrupt him.”

Second, Warmbier’s captivity will serve as a warning to those who would follow in his footsteps. As long as he remains in a North Korean labor camp, it will be clear to all who would think of traveling to North Korea that a long state-sponsored kidnapping and enslavement may be the result. Once again, there are people who need a current ongoing example to remind them of this.

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