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News Brief: Warmbier Dies; Russia To Target U.S. Jets Over Syria


Some U.S. officials are using the word murder to describe the death of an American soon after North Korea released him.


The story begins in 2015, when Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as part of a student tour group. He was detained for apparently stealing a propaganda banner, which the North Koreans called a, quote, "hostile act" against their government. Warmbier had to give a televised confession.


OTTO WARMBIER: I understand the severity of my crime. And I have no idea what sort of penalty I may face, but I am begging to the Korean people and government for my forgiveness.

MARTIN: By the time he was released, after almost a year and a half in prison, Warmbier was in a coma. The 22-year-old died yesterday in a Cincinnati hospital.

INSKEEP: So many questions about this. And NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen is going to try to help us to answer some of them. Hi, Michele.


INSKEEP: Would you just remind us, how was Warmbier released in the first place?

KELEMEN: Well, the Trump administration sent a U.S. envoy, Joseph Yun, to go have secret talks first in Oslo and then in New York with the North Koreans specifically on the issue of detained Americans. And it was in New York, we're told, where he learned of Warmbier's medical condition. The Trump administration moved quickly to send him, Joseph Yun, to Pyongyang to - with a team of doctors to bring Warmbier home.

INSKEEP: Oh, so his actual condition prompted - helped to prompt his release. And was the Trump administration doing something the Obama administration had not tried? Because Warmbier had been captured, so to speak, while Obama was president.

KELEMEN: Well, I think taking part in these - was originally track two diplomacy in Oslo. These were meetings between U.S. experts or...

INSKEEP: Back channel sort of stuff, yeah.

KELEMEN: ...Yeah, back channel - to send a diplomat to join those was something new. And it was, again, focused solely on the fate of Americans.

INSKEEP: OK. So one person is out but dead. John McCain - Senator John McCain called this murder. How, if at all, can the United States respond?

KELEMEN: It's a good question, Steve. I mean, North Korea's the most diplomatically isolated country on earth, so it's not clear what more the U.S. is going to be able to do on this. What - we could see more sanctions, more pressure, perhaps more of a focus by the Trump administration on the human rights situation in North Korea and a big push just to get clear answers about what exactly happened to Warmbier. I mean, the U.S. doesn't have an embassy, so when Americans are arrested, it's Swedish diplomats who represent U.S. interests there. And the Swedes hadn't seen Warmbier since March of 2016.

INSKEEP: What does it mean for the other three Americans that Warmbier has been released but is now dead?

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who says that we're going to hold North Korea accountable for this death, has said that, you know, he's demanding that these other three be released. When that U.S. diplomat, Joseph Yun, went to Pyongyang to bring Warmbier home, he did get a chance to see the other three we're told. But the State Department wouldn't say what kind of position they're in.

INSKEEP: Does this significantly escalate what was already a very tense situation with North Korea?

KELEMEN: It certainly does. You know, and again, when we were talking about what the U.S. can do in response, one thing they can do is just to bar Americans from going there. You know, it's an unusual situation where the U.S. doesn't have restrictions on American travelers, also to punish the tour groups that bring Americans. The one that brought Otto Warmbier is now saying that they're not going to take Americans anymore.

INSKEEP: OK. Michele, thanks very much.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen.


INSKEEP: Russia says it's willing to escalate a confrontation in Syria.

MARTIN: The U.S. shot down a Syrian government warplane, which is unusual. The U.S. is targeting ISIS in Syria but generally has not gone after the government in this multi-sided civil war. So Syria's government is backed by Russia, a reminder.

So in response to the U.S. action shooting down this warplane, Russia says it's going to target American planes if they fly over certain parts of Syria. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, was asked about this yesterday.


JOSEPH DUNFORD: I'm confident that we are still communicating between our operations center and the Russian Federation operations center. And I'm also confident that our forces have the capability to take care of themselves.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is following this story from Moscow. Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Just briefly, why was a Syrian plane shot down by the U.S. in the first place?

KIM: Well, the U.S. military says that this plane had just completed a bombing raid on allied forces on the ground outside of Raqqa and was returning to base when it was shot down.

INSKEEP: Oh, outside of Raqqa? So these are forces targeting ISIS in affiliation with the United States. And they say Syria targeted them, so the U.S. shot the plane down. Why would Russia, though, respond, given that it was a Syrian war plane, not a Russian plane?

KIM: Well, Russia is, of course, allied with Syria and has been involved in the conflict since September 2015. But, in fact, the relations between Moscow and Damascus go back all the way to the Cold War. And right now, the Russian government is saying, well, we were invited to help the Syrian government, while the U.S. is simply violating Syria's sovereignty by being involved in the conflict.

INSKEEP: Should we be really, you know, nervous, Lucian Kim, to have the world's two largest nuclear powers talking about shooting at each other's aircraft?

KIM: Well, first of all, Steve, I think there's a difference between targeting an airplane and shooting it down.

INSKEEP: Oh, good to know.

KIM: I think what's significant here is that, you know, Russian President Vladimir Putin still hasn't reacted. There was - the U.S. had a missile strike against a Syrian air base back in April. Back then, he immediately condemned it. He convened his national security council to talk about it.

And here, you don't have that same reaction. I think actually from the Kremlin's point of view, he wants to keep things on a slightly lower volume because he's really looking forward to a meeting with President Trump. The Kremlin hopes that would happen at the beginning of July.

INSKEEP: Oh, so maybe this thread is not quite so grave as it sounds at first?

KIM: Well, as far as suspending the military hotline, that sounds really, really grave when I read the press release yesterday from the Russian Defence Ministry, but...

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, suspending this hotline through which the two countries are supposed to de-conflict, as they say, right.

KIM: Important is to remember that they - the Russian side already announced that it had suspended it back in April. And the U.S. says that those contacts continued nonetheless.

INSKEEP: Have continued, so they're still talking even while saying they're not talking. OK. Lucian, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

KIM: Sure. Good talking to you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow.


INSKEEP: OK, to the United States now. The finale to the most expensive House race in history is today.

MARTIN: Voters in Georgia go to the polls to fill a vacant seat. This is a seat left by Tom Price, who has a new job. He's now President Trump's Health and Human Services secretary. So this is a conservative-leaning district that Republicans have held for decades. There's a 30-year-old Democrat named Jon Ossoff who's trying to change that. He nearly won the seat in the first round. And now he's in this runoff against Republican Karen Handel.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith is with us on this election morning - for Georgia, anyway. Hi, Tam.


INSKEEP: How much are the national parties focused on this one seat?

KEITH: Oh, so, so very focused on this one seat. I mean, and we've been talking about it for months. Just to give you a sign of how much attention this is getting, at least $55 million - actually more than that - have been spent on this one special election.


KEITH: That includes outside groups. That includes the candidates themselves. This is, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, easily the most expensive congressional race in history.

INSKEEP: Wow. Which suggests that Democrats think they have a chance to win, obviously. What has made this particular district competitive at all?

KEITH: So Tom Price, the Health and Human Services secretary, when he was a congressman, won by a pretty big margin in 2016. But in that same district, in that same election, President Trump only won by about one-and-a-half points. And so the thought is that President Trump's brand of populism just didn't play as well in this suburban district. This seat, however, was designed to be a safe Republican district. So if Ossoff is able to pull this off, then - you know, this has been a Republican seat since before he was born.

INSKEEP: Wow. Wow. But I'm thinking about this, Tamara Keith. This would be huge, I guess, if Democrats managed to win, but it's still just one seat. And if Democrats are crushed after spending all this money, that's going to be crushing. Do all Democrats that you hear from agree that this is the right place to be spending tens of millions of dollars with a big election for all the House coming up next year?

KEITH: Not necessarily, but it's the only game in town. And also, whether Democratic leaders believe it's the right place to spend money, Democratic voters all over America have been sending money into Ossoff. He's - you know, he hasn't gotten a ton of his money from inside the district itself, but this has become sort of a cause celebre for voters - Democratic voters all over America who are angry and frustrated and want an outlet. This race has become their outlet.

INSKEEP: And how worried and active are Republicans?

KEITH: Well, President Trump tweeted about this race three times yesterday, so that gives you an indication of it.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, wait a minute. If the problem is Trump is not too popular there, maybe that's not the thing you'd want your president to do but OK.

KEITH: Don't tell him that.

INSKEEP: (Laughter) All right. That's fine. That's fine. Tamara, thanks very much, really appreciate it.

KEITH: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Tamara Keith talking to us on this day when voters in a congressional district in Georgia hold a special election for one seat in the House of Representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAT JON'S "MAIA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: June 19, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous headline and Web summary misspelled Otto Warmbier's last name as Wermbier.