Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student from the University of Virginia who spent almost a year and a half detained in North Korea has died.
So how did Otto Warmbier end up in North Korea?
During the last few months of 2015, Otto was traveling in China according to his father, Fred Warmbier. While in China, a tour group known as Young Pioneer Tours was advertising trips to North Korea with the slogan “This is the tip your parents don’t want you to take!” Otto, who his father called adventurous, took the opportunity to visit the country with the group which consisted of ten American citizens. The five-day tour saw the group staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in the capital city of Pyongyang. Fred Warmbier is accusing Young Pioneer Tours of targeting young Westerners for North Korea to abduct them. After Otto’s death, Young Pioneer Tours says it will no longer bring Americans to North Korea.
It was during his stay at the hotel when Otto allegedly stole a sign which read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”. The alleged theft resulted in Otto being arrested at the Pyongyang International Airport shortly before he was scheduled to leave the country. The North Korean news agency KCNA, described the incident as being “a hostile act against the state.”
In North Korea, it is considered a serious crime to harm in any way items containing the image or name of any leader. Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor by North Korean authorities, a sentence which the Human Rights Watch organization called “outrageous and shocking.”
A press conference was held on February 29, 2016, where Otto confessed to the theft of North Korean propaganda which he claimed to be for the mother of a friend who wanted to hand it in her church in Wyoming, Ohio. Otto went on to say that she had offered him a used car valued at $10,000 in exchange or in the case of his detainment $200,000 to be given to his mother. He accepted the offer, claiming that his family was suffering severe financial difficulties. There was also encouragement, Otto said, from the Z Society to commit the act, the Z Society is a semi-secret society based out of the University of Virginia which helps place graduates in high-paying jobs and closely linked to the CIA.
Fred Warmbier dismissed the entire offer of money and a possible link to the Z Society, claiming that his son’s confession was forced by the government of North Korea and that no such offer was made. Whether Otto’s confession was coerced or not remains unclear, during the press conference he was dressed in civilian clothing and his hands were unbound. Otto read from a prepared confession; “I never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPR Korea, for your forgiveness. Please! I have made the worst mistake of my life! Please! Think of my family.”
The state-run Korean Central News Agency released an 18-second video on March 18, 2016, which they said showed the theft taking place. The video, which is low-resolution shows a figure whose face is never shown, removing the poster from the wall and placing it on the floor. The video loops to show the removal of the sign a second time but the figure performing the act remains unrecognizable. Otto’s father claims that the charges against his son were fabricated by the North Korean government to detain his son.
Political relations between the United States and North Korea made it more difficult to secure the release of Otto. With high tensions between the two countries, U.S interests in North Korea are handled by Sweden.
Otto Warmbier returns home from North Korea
Otto Warmbier remained in North Korea for 17 months until on June 12, 2017, United Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced that Otto was being released. Warmbier’s parents were told that their son was medically evacuated after contracting what the North Korean officials claimed was botulism. Officials claimed that shortly after his trial, Otto fell into a coma caused by a combination of botulism and a sleeping pill he had been given. Otto arrived at the Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport on June 13, 2017, and was then rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Once at the medical center, doctors attempted to discover what caused the coma, stating skepticism that botulism and a sleeping pill were responsible.
Doctors discovered that Otto suffered severe brain damage consistent with a cardiopulmonary event and that he was in “a state of unresponsive wakefulness.” Otto could breathe without medical assistance and blink his eye but was unresponsive to the environment. Though doctors could not determine exactly what had caused Otto to suffer cardiac arrest, they suggested it could have been the result of respiratory arrest. There were no signs of any torture or physical abuse to help explain the serious brain injury. Tests also showed that there were no signs that Otto had contracted botulism which while it can cause paralysis, cannot cause a coma. The few medical records from North Korea that were sent showed that Otto had been in a coma since April of 2016 only one month after he was convicted of theft.
Otto Warmbier dies from his injuries
On June 19, 2017 Otto passed away at the hospital. “Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today, ” Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s parents said via a written statement.
Otto’s death sparked outrage and sadness from all sides of the political spectrum, some going so far as to call his death ‘murder.’ There have been calls for travel visa restrictions to North Korea or to ban travel to the country altogether. In a statement released Monday afternoon, President Trump said; “Melania and I offer our deepest condolences to the family of Otto Warmbier on his untimely passing. There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thought and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him. Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Otto Warmbier is survived by his parents as well as two siblings.