Document Type

Student Research Paper


Spring 2020

Academic Department

Politics, Philosophy, and Legal Studies

Faculty Advisor(s)

Dr. April Kelly-Woessner, Dr. Oya Dursun-Özkanca


This paper analyzes foreign political prisoners’ treatment in North Korea during Donald Trump’s presidency. This subject is of particular interest given the widespread media attention the Trump Administration received following detained student Otto Warmbier’s return to the United States in June 2017 and historic Singapore summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Moreover, such U.S.-North Korea relations are particularly crucial given North Korea’s strong nuclear capabilities and designation as a totalitarian country. Using the Otto Warmbier story as the primary case study as well as public opinion analysis, bar association reports, official testimony, and commentary on international human rights law, this paper provides empirical research evaluating whether foreign political prisoners’ treatment has changed during the Trump presidency and what motivations are present for maintaining the circumstances affecting human rights in North Korea. The research presented in this paper finds the existing state of affairs prohibits foreign political prisoners from receiving improved treatment in North Korea; Kim’s release of foreign prisoners such as Warmbier is merely to maintain appearances in the public eye and manipulate the Trump Administration. Moreover, as Trump Administration’s approach to North Korea is marked by unpredictability, such conditions are unlikely to improve given his volatile rhetoric and capacity to anger Kim Jong-un’s regime.


PS 490: HNR Senior Thesis