CINCINNATI -- The death of Cincinnati native Otto Warmbier a week after leaving a North Korean prison has sent a shockwave of grief and anger through the Tri-State and the nation. But a renowned expert on the reclusive regime -- also a Cincinnati native -- doesn’t believe the repercussions will break down the fitful peace it has kept with the United States since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Dr. Walter Clemens, 84, is professor emeritus at Boston University and an associate at Harvard University's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He also was the among the first group of graduate exchange students to visit a similarly distrustful and seemingly antithetical regime -- the Soviet Union -- when he studied at Moscow State University in the late 1950s. He was not much older than Warmbier was when Warmbier visited North Korea.
“(Our) motive (was that) mutual understanding might avoid war and facilitate cooperation in various fields,” he said, adding that most of his stay was quite pleasant. “I never had so many apparent friends in my life as in Moscow. In 1960, however, after the U-2 incident, some people asked: Why do you Americans want to harm us?”
The "U-2 incident" refers to when the Soviets shot down an American U-2 spy plane, creating an international incident and raising the temperature between the Cold War foes.
Warmbier was sentenced in early 2016 after being convicted of stealing a propaganda poster when he visited Pyongyang with a tour group.
Warmbier returned to Cincinnati in a coma, or a state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” on June 13; he died Monday. North Korea claims Warmbier had botulism poisoning, was given a sleeping pill and lapsed into a coma in 2016. University of Cincinnati physicians who examined Warmbier found no sign of botulism, but also no sign of any physical trauma.
“It looks as though the regime did something to hurt Otto and then let him stay in a coma for a year before returning him to his parents to spend the last hours of his life,” Clemens said. “We don't really know that they harmed Otto. (They’re) very tough on their own prisoners but usually not so harsh with foreign prisoners.”
As for U.S.-North Korea relations going forward, Clemens, a 1951 graduate of Purcell High School, takes a long view.
“Wait a while and try to reopen negotiations with North Korea,” Clemens said. “With Russia, we eventually got detente, arms control and some improvement in human rights.”
In April and May, when the U.S. was dealing with regular long-range missile tests by North Korea, Clemens wrote a piece for the website Global Asia afterward in which he poses as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un writing a letter to President Donald Trump. It combines Kim’s bombastic rhetoric with Clemens’ own scholarly conclusions.
“Your military threats are empty,” Clemens writes as Kim. “Your bombers nearly flattened North Korea in the 1950s, but we recovered quickly after the war. If you attack us now, you might destroy some of our nuclear facilities, but not all. Our knowhow would remain. If you launch even a limited attack, we will fire our artillery and short-range missiles and turn South Korea into a sea of flame.
“But the major way to reduce tensions and control arms is by building trust. Cultural and economic ties can come first and lay a foundation for political cooperation. The New York Philharmonic played in Pyongyang to rapturous applause in 2008. When will you let us reciprocate?”
Clemens’ most recent book, published in 2016, is “North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation.” His next book, expected to be published in 2019, is titled “My Cold War: An American Academic's Adventures and Misadventures Behind, Through, and Around the Iron Curtain.”