In December of 2015, US college student Otto Warmbier traveled to North Korea as a part of a guided tour group. At the airport preparing to go home, he was arrested, accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. (1)
Otto was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment and hard labor in North Korea in March of 2016. Shortly after sentencing, he suffered a severe brain injury from a (still) unconfirmed source. For 17 months, he was in a coma, unbeknownst to the U.S. authorities working to free him and his family. (1)
He was freed in June of 2017, arriving home in Cincinnati still unconscious to the shock and heartbreak of his family. He was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for evaluation and treatment. He did not improve, and his feeding tube was removed. He died on June 19th, 2017. (1)
BEFORE THE INCIDENT
Otto had a very successful life behind him, and was looking forward to a very successful life ahead of him. A smart, athletic prom and homecoming king, Otto was known as a friendly kid who had every opportunity in front of him. He attended the University of Virginia on scholarship. He volunteered, he was in a fraternity, he won a coveted internship. He was thriving, and everything in his life pointed to him continuing to do so. (2)
He had a lot of interest in other cultures, and he figured while he was already in Hong Kong to study abroad, he might as well hit up North Korea at the same time. (2)
He chose a tour group, Young Pioneer Tours, which was advertised as a safe option. His parents weren’t thrilled about it, but eventually relented, and Otto was off to North Korea. (1)
THE INCIDENT AND THE TRIAL
Early on in the trip, the tour group learned a lot of the anti-American beliefs and actions by the North Koreans – stories about torturing Americans, propaganda posters of missiles aimed at the white house. He began to understand the seriousness of the situation – he was the enemy. But his tour mates were able to calm him down, and he got right back to having the fun trip he’d hoped for. (2)
Though none of his tour mates and corroborate his story, as many went their separate ways on the evening in question, a grainy CCTV video shows a man attempting to remove and take a propaganda poster from a restricted area of the hotel. This video was a solid portion of the evidence used against him in the trial.
Otto’s statement is where this story goes from sad to sad and weird. Otto confessed, saying that he had intended to steal the poster but set it down because it was too large to carry. In his confession, he said that he had attempted to steal it at the behest of his hometown Methodist Church and an unnamed secret Society at the University of Virginia – but both deny any involvement in the incident. Furthermore, Otto was Jewish – he likely wouldn’t have had a connection to the Methodist Church. (1)
Beyond the odd associations he mentioned, the confession felt entirely forced. He said that he had put on his “quietest boots, the best for sneaking” in order to get to the poster – not really how many of us would talk. He read directly from a paper the entire time. (2)
Ultimately, Otto was charged with subversion and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. They used his confession, the CCTV footage and fingerprint evidence to convict him. (2) During the trial, Otto broke down: “I have made the worst decision of my life. But I am only human. I beg that you find it in your hearts to give me forgiveness and allow me to return home to my family. (2)
WAS OTTO WARMBIER TORTURED?
When Otto returned, a feat that the Trump administration played a large role in, stories began to spin. Specifically, that Otto was “tortured beyond belief” and that torture was ultimately the cause of his death. (2)
Otto’s parents claimed that his body was totally deformed, his teeth had been rearranged, there was a large gash on his foot. His parents and family were horrified – rightly so, of course. They had been waiting to see their child for nearly 2 years to finally see him just days away from his death. (2)
But torture just doesn’t seem likely.
North Korea is not typically kind to its prisoners. The people who have it “good” are starved and beaten. The people who have it bad are tortured to death. But Americans tend to escape that fate. (2)
Like many other American prisoners before him, he was likely kept in a guesthouse. The guesthouse is described as hotel-esque, but still a cell in which he was not allowed to leave. Before the trial, Otto likely would have been interrogated a ton, but not tortured. Or, physically tortured, that is. (2)
The psychological torture is another beast entirely. Interrogations for hours on end, telling you your country has abandoned you, filling your brain with propaganda films in any waking minute you aren’t being interrogated. His teeth may have not been rearranged, but it is safe to assume that even had he not died, Otto would have come back an extremely changed man. (2)
When the authorities responsible for freeing Otto arrived, they didn’t know yet that they’d get to take him home, but further, they didn’t know that he’d been unconscious since his sentencing. They begged for his release, but the North Koreans refused to budge: He had committed the crime, why shouldn’t be held accountable? (2)
Eventually, when they got to see him, they (and the doctors back in Cincinnati) admitted that he was well cared for. Specifically, his skin was still in pristine condition with no bedsores – something that would require great care for someone who was unconscious for 17 months. Though the Wambier’s remain angry at North Korea (and, certainly, who wouldn’t), they maintain that Otto was an enemy of the state who they did not have to show mercy to, yet provided him excellent medical treatment. (2)
Though the cause of brain damage that the North Koreans provided was botulism, the doctors found no evidence of it. However, they also found no evidence of physical abuse or torture. The injuries were consistent with a cardiopulmonary event, but no further details were able to be determined. When he arrived, he was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”, meaning he was awake, but his brain showed no signs of awareness. The Warmbiers did not request an autopsy after his death. (1)
WHAT ELSE COULD HAVE HAPPENED?
Though doctors think his cause of death could have been anything ranging from a blood clot to pneumonia, sepsis to kidney failure, no one really knows what happened to Otto Warmbier before he went unconscious. (1)
A theory, one I found in the article I found much of this information from written by journalist Doug Bock Clark, is that Otto committed suicide. (2)
The time proximity between the trial in March and the April medical records from North Korea indicate not much time passed between his sentencing and his decline. It is not beyond the realm of likelihood to imagine that a young, All-American kid with his entire life in front of him who was just sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in enemy territory would feel helpless and terrified enough to end his life.
There have been at least 2 other American prisoners in North Korea who committed suicide while imprisoned. Though both ultimately survived and were returned back to the United States, both ended up dying by suicide back on American soil. (2)
Though much like many things in this case, it is and probably will always be unproven, it seems as likely an explanation as any.
Regardless of what happened, we do know that 4 years ago today, a young kid was detained in North Korea and his family was changed forever. Tortured or not, confession forced or not, Otto Warmbier went to North Korea and never really returned. And that is worth feeling something about.
WANT TO LEARN MORE?
- As mentioned above, Doug Bock Clark wrote a bananas amazing article where a ton of the information in this article is pulled from. I would highly recommend giving it a read (see reference 2 below)