Death of American detained in North Korea baffles experts

North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests, its carefully scripted propaganda bluster, even its military threats: Far from the scattershot workings of a madman, most of this fits the playbook of a small, proud country well used to stoking tensions to get concessions it would otherwise not receive from surrounding big powers.

What happened to Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died just days after North Korea released him from detention in a coma, is far more difficult to make sense of.

It jars so strikingly with the fates of most past detained Americans that outside observers are left struggling not only with the mystery of what killed Warmbier but also with what his death means for attempts by Washington and its allies to stop North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear-tipped ICBM that can target the U.S. mainland.

“The treatment of Otto Warmbier is beyond the pale of North Korea’s usual standards,” said John Delury, an Asia expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University. “It’s worth a forceful response. The U.S. government should not just throw up its hands and say, ‘This is just how North Korea is.’ But how do you do that in a smart way where there is some modicum of accountability?”

What follows is a closer examination of one of the more perplexing and heart-rending developments in North Korea’s long, antagonistic standoff with its neighbors and Washington.

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WHAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED?

It may never be known, but there are some clues — as well as widespread speculation.

The University of Virginia student was medically evacuated from North Korea last week, more than a year after a court sentenced him to 15 years in prison with hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda banner.

Early this month, North Korean diplomats at the United Nations urgently requested a face-to-face meeting with U.S. officials in New York. During the meeting, Washington learned of Warmbier’s condition.

His family said it was told he fell into a coma soon after his…

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