Statement on Death of Otto Warmbier

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(Photo: Otto Warmbier with a teacher at his 2013 high school graduation where he graduated at salutatorian. Source: Washington Post)

Otto F. Warmbier, a 22-year-old honors student at the University of Virginia, was pronounced dead at 2:20pm today in the Cincinnati hospital he was at. The Daily Beast called Warmbier’s death a “state sanctioned murder” (Daily Beast). The Warmbier family released a statement regarding the death of their son. “Unfortunately the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible,” the statement read (Washington Post). Otto will be the face of bravery to the family who loved him and, sadly, a reminder of the brutality of the North Korean regime to the rest of us. We at The Korea Page would like to extend our most sorrowful condolences to the Warmbiers who have suffered more than any family in this world should have to suffer. Each author of The Korea Page has prepared our own words, which will be shared in the sections below.

Ben Zimmer

Otto Warmbier’s passing is a tragic end to a promising life. Otto was not only a promising student, he was a brave soul to travel into the world’s most brutal regime. It is tragic that Warmbier’s story ended the way that it did and I would like to send my deepest condolences to the Warmbier family throughout this toughest of times. In order to ensure that Otto’s story is never forgotten, I, to the best of my ability, will detail his entire story against the North Korean regime.

North Korea vs. Otto Warmbier: A Case of Murder

Otto Warmbier travelled to North Korea on a group tour sponsored by Young Pioneer Tours in January of 2016. During his tour, Warmbier appeared to have a wonderful time exploring the hermit regime. A video shows Warmbier throwing snowballs at the camera with North Korean children (Washington Post)[Warmbier is the fourth from the right in the video]. However, things took a turn for the worst as he was boarding a plane home.

While boarding a plane home, Warmbier was arrested under the guise that he entered the country with hostile intent. In state media, North Korea stated that Warmbier attempted to steal a propaganda poster, accusing him of “perpetrating a hostile act,” though details of this hostile act were vague at the time (CBS). In a show trial in March of 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor (Yonhap). In his trail, the North Koreans used video allegedly showing Otto stealing the poster and convicted him of committing a hostile act at the behest of a church organization and the CIA to bring down the North Korean state (NY Times). Before his sentencing, Warmbier pleaded for his release. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said (Bustle). Video of the trail shows a distressed Warmbier crying as he pleads for his future.[1]

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(Photo: Otto Warmbier being escorted by authorities at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang. Source: NY Times)

During his time in captivity, Otto Warmbier slipped into a coma after, as North Korea alleged, contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill, a claim refuted from the beginning by Warmbier’s father (NBC News). Hours after his release, Dr. Kanter, director of neurocritical care at the University of Cincinnati Health System, reported that Warmbier showed no signs of botulism, but rather had suffered a severe neurological injury and brain damage resulting from loss of oxygen (Korea Herald). Kanter called Warmbier’s state–inability to understand language, unresponsive to commands, lack of understanding surroundings–as an “unresponsive wakefulness (CNN). On June 19th, the Warmbier family released a statement saying their son had completed his journey home and passed away at 2:20pm (Washington Post). Following the news, President Trump condemned the brutality of the North Korean regime (The Hill).

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(Photo: Otto Warmbier being carried off the plane after landing in Ohio. Source: NY Times)

Otto’s story is one tragedy and loss. North Korea denied Warmbier consular visits and medical care while in custody. Information regarding his condition was closely guarded and Warmbier was released only when his life was at its end. End to end, his treatment is a gross human rights violation requiring a swift and strong response. The death of an American citizen at the hands of a state actor is repulsive and condemnable at all levels.

Young Pioneer Tours and The Future of Travel to North Korea

Young Pioneer Tours was established by Gareth Johnson in 2008 as a way to combine his love of travel with his interest in the people and culture of the DPRK (Young Pioneer Tours). The company prides itself on budget tours of North Korea, offering a wide range of travel packages and tours. Otto was on a New Year’s tour offered by the company when he was detained.

Upon his release, Young Pioneer Tours continued to claim that North Korea was one of the safest spots to travel to. Following Otto’s death, Young Pioneer Tours updated its North Korea FAQ. “Despite what you may hear, for most nationalities, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on Earth to visit provided you follow the laws,” the page now reads (Young Pioneer Tours). The company also reported its intent to cease taking American tourists citing a higher risk of detainment and death (NK News; Young Pioneer Tours). Even before Otto’s case, Young Pioneer Tours has allegedly put tourists in North Korea in danger; Gareth Johson is said to condone heavy drinking and sexual questions to North Korean women (NY Times).

Young Pioneer Tours handling of the situation was, at best, removed from the urgency of the situation. In a statement released following the detainment of Warmbier, Young Pioneer Tours bragged about their record of low arrests (Young Pioneer Tours Statement). Even following Warmbier’s return in a coma, Young Pioneer Tours called North Korea an extremely safe country for tourists (NY Times). Young Pioneer Tours handling of Otto’s case was negligent and also abhorrent. Instead of highlighting the grave situation Warmbier was in, the company languished on its resume and continued to promote tours to North Korea on a budget. Though not at fault, Young Pioneer Tours handling of the case is repulsive and worthy of criticism.

Politically, travel to North Korea by American citizens may be in jeopardy. In light of Otto’s case, President Trump, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, is mulling the possibility of enacting travel restrictions to North Korea, maybe even an outright ban (NPR).

 

Notes:

[1] Full video of Otto Warmbier’s trail can be found at the Bustle source cited above.

Leon Newkirk

The denial of medical treatment to Otto Warmbier was a denial of his humanity. The actions of the North Korean officials echo a sentiment of a bygone era which may nations vowed to prevent from reoccurring in modern times. Warmbier’s case demonstrates the brutal mistreatment of foreigners and prisoners within North Korea. Human beings are human beings, not mere casualties in the conflicts among state governments. People easily become bargaining chips in an ever-polarizing world. We, as people, should keep in mind of the mental and emotional damage that inhumane treatment causes. Whether they fight on the frontlines or simply visit a country, everyone has a mother and father that cares deeply for them.

Warmbier’s conviction was the attempted theft of a propaganda poster from his hotel. Though a country has a right to enforce its own laws within its borders, North Korea’s conviction for what many would see as a simple prank speaks volumes. A sentencing of 15 years’ hard labor combined with severe beatings reveals excessive abuse of power, alludes to the secretive and cryptic nature of North Korea, the sheer harshness of capital and state punishment, and the extent to which the North Korean government will go to prevent pieces of truth from reaching the world. Otto’s case speaks volumes about the North Korean government, its laws and politics, and its officials.

 

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Update: North Korea Fires Ballistic Missile into the Sea

north-korean-missiles(Image: A comparison of North Korea’s missiles and their ranges. Though not much is known of the KN-15, it is estimated to have a range of 1500 to 2000km, roughly the same as teh No-dong missile system. Source: CSIS Missile Threat)

North Korea is acting out only a day before President Trump meets at his Mar-a-Lago Resort with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. Early on Wednesday morning, an unknown projectile was fired into the East Sea from Sinpo, North Hamgyeong Province (Yonhap). A few moments later, the Joint Chiefs of Staff in South Korea confirmed that North Korea had indeed tested a missile, though refused to specify what the projectile was; it was merely reported that the projectile was not a piece of artillery (Yonhap).Overall, the test

Overall, the test appears to be a failure, as the missile did not fly for very long. After being launched at 6:42am, the missile was tracked until 6:51am. It reached a maximum altitude of 183km and flew around 60km before splashing down in the East Sea (Yonhap; Korea Times). The missile was later identified as the KN-15–also known as the Pukguksong-2–a nuclear capable, land-based variant of the KN-14 SLBM. Unlike previous KN-15 tests, however, this test was a missile powered by liquid fuel not solid (Chicago Tribune). However the international community spins the test, North Korea will have gained some valuable information to develop yet another missile to operability, making it more difficult to counter.

Responses to the test have been, for lack of better word, curious. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement which read, “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment” (Secretary of State’s Remarks). Ahn Cheol-soo, a contender in the 2017 South Korean presidential race responded by highlighting the importance of national security in South Korea (Chosun Ilbo*). So far, President Trump and other world leaders have yet to respond to the test.

Politically, the test will intensify the political parlay over North Korea between President Trump and Xi Jinping during their meeting. Trump has long advocated for a larger Chinese role in solving the North Korean issue, saying in a recent interview with the Financial Times that “China will either help us, or they won’t” (Financial Times). Trump has also accused China of not using its economic leverage to perturb Pyongyang into abandoning their programs. Economically, China accounts for the majority North Korean trade, and several Chinese companies have conducted business to the tune of $8 million with North Korea (Chosun Ilbo).

China, despite strong economic ties with North Korea, has been making moves to comply with United Nations Security Council Resolutions, including the suspension of North Korean coal imports for 2017. Many saw this move as placing the ball in America’s hands (The Economist). Wednesday’s test will heighten the tensions between Xi and Trump ahead of their Flordia meeting. Other items most likely to be covered will most likely include THAAD deployment on the Korean Peninsula. THAAD is yet another issue which will be even more contentious following this test.

North Korea is behaving like a neglected child, constantly stirring trouble in order to steal the spotlight. Wednesday’s test offered the reclusive regime a way to ensure it would be at the top of the agenda for Trump and Xi.

Corrections:

April 10: Updated information of the test parameters, detailing the use of liquid fuel in the second paragraph. Added an additional source in paragraph 2.

Daily Update – March 6

North Korea vs. Malaysia

The diplomatic parlay between Malaysia and North Korea continues to surprise in scope following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. This weekend, Malaysia expelled North Korean ambassador Kang Chol. Kang left the country on Monday. While leaving, he said that such extreme measures are hurting the relations between the countries (NY Times).

North Korea, on Monday, had a strong reaction. Malaysian ambassador to North Korea Mohamad Nizan Mohamad was declared person non grata and given 48 hours to leave. The irony, however, was that he was already home, having been summoned for a consultation on February 22 (The Star). Pyongyang also went a step further. On Monday, state media declared an exit ban on all Malaysians currently inside North Korea (Yonhap), Malaysia continued the back and forth, placing an exit ban on all North Koreans in Malaysia until Malaysians in North Korea are safely back home. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in a statement, called North Korea’s actions abhorrent and against international norms (AlJezzera). Though North Korea has never been one to follow the rules, this diplomatic tit-for-tat is very abnormal. As it stands, the murder of Kim Jong-nam, a case which the world may never learn all the answers to, will be a thorn in the side of Malaysian-North Korean relations as each nation accuses the other of the death.

North Korea vs. The World

Over the weekend, North Korea fired off 4 rockets into the ocean, with 3 falling into the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone; the rockets flew 1000km and reached an altitude of 260km after being fired from the Dongchang-ri test facility, home of the Sohae Launch Station (Korea Times). This is the biggest show of aggression–nuclear tests excluded–since Kim Jung-un took over in 2011.

k2017030600201_main(Image: Map showing the distance of the missiles tested by North Korea. Source: Korea Times)

The reason behind the test is fairly clear, to protest the ongoing military drills in South Korea which will run until April. Before the test, North Korea said, through the Rodong Shinmun, “as long as the drill is not suspended, we will continue to strengthen our national defense capabilities centering on a nuclear force to defend our country” (UPI). Though the motivation behind the test is nothing new, the actual test itself is alarming. Japanese analysts have concluded that North Korea tested a new attack strategy to use against Japan (NY Times). Even North Korea acknowledged this, saying the test was conducted by units who are “tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggression forces in Japan,” (Yonhap).

This brazen provocative behavior has sent leaders pushing to condemn the action. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first to condemn the test, filing a strong protest against the action (The Korea Page). President Trump, in a call with acting president Hwang Kyo-ahn reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to Seoul (Hindustan Times). South Korean presidential hopefuls also condemned the test. Moon Jae-in, the leading progressive, urged “the repressive state to immediately stop provocations that are putting the Korean Peninsula in danger.” An Hee-jong said that North Korea could only survive if it becomes a full member of the international community. Other candidates also condemned the test (Korea Times). North Korea responded in typical North Korean fashion, echoing its insistence that the joint drills in South Korea are pushing the region to a nuclear disaster (ABC Austrailia).

It is on the issue of THAAD where South Korea made major moves in light of the test. On Tuesday, parts for the missile defense system started to arrive in South Korea (Bloomberg). This move was met with skepticism by the opposition parties in Korea. The parties all rose questions about the rushed manner of the move, arguing that it was a politically motivated move ahead of the elections (Yonhap). THAAD has long been a contentious domestic debate within South Korea, pitting opposition parties against the ruling party for years. China has been retaliating to the deployment of THAAD in an interesting way. Authorities are shutting down Lotte Marts in China as a possible economic retaliation for the deployment (Joongang Ilbo). THAAD, though necessary, will remain a hard debate in the region. However, as I have previously argued, there may be ways to bolster Chinese and Russian support for the deployment (The Korea Page).

Breaking News: Malaysia Expells North Korean Ambassador

(Image: Ri Jong-chol leaving a Sepang Police Station. Source: MalayMail)

The international parlay between Malaysia and North Korea in the wake of the Kim Jung-nam assassination continues to develop. Malaysia has expelled North Korean ambassador Kang Chol (YonhapNews*). Malaysian authorities also released Ri Jong-chol, a North Korean questioned in connection with the murder of Kim Jong-nam. According to reports, the Ri drove four North Korean men to the Kuala Lumpur Airport on the day of the murder. But since then, all four have returned to North Korea (Radio Free Asia).  Without the connection of those four suspects, authorities have been unable to press charges against Ri. The N called his arrest a plot to damage the honor of his country (BBC).  He was transported to a Malaysian airport wearing a bulletproof vest. Ri called his arrest a conspiracy to damage the honor of North Korea (Reuters).

North Korea, yesterday, responded to the allegations of assassination.  Pyongyang’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Ri Tong-il said Kim Jung-nam had a record of heart disease and that he died of a heart attack (Radio Free Asia). Even early into the investigation, North Korea rebutted Malaysian authorities, saying their findings where full of holes and contradictions, while shifting blame to Malaysia, saying “The biggest responsibility for his death rests with the government of Malaysia as the citizen of the DPRK died in its land,” in a statement (TIME).

Malaysia has yet to formally blame North Korea for the murder. However, Malaysia ceased its visa waver program with Pyongyang.

Kim Jong-nam died on February 13, after being attacked in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, while being transferred to the hospital. A Malaysian-led autopsy revealed he had been poisoned with VX nerve agent, a chemical weapon listed as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations. The two women responsible for the attack have been charged with murder and may face the death penalty, if found guilty (CNN).

Correction March 6, 2017: This first reported Ri Jong-chol as the North Korean ambassador, though he was simply a North Korean citizen. Kang Chol was the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia before his expulsion in the aftermath of the Kim Jong-nam assassination. Also fixed spelling of Malaysia throughout the article.

Daily Update: February 16

South Korea

Economy – I put economy first, breaking with the typical tradition of this post, because a story is currently breaking.  A South Korea court has ruled Hanjin Shipping Company, a leader in the South Korean shipping industry for decades, officially bankrupt (MarketWatch).  In August of 2016, Hanjin went into receivership and applied for court protection.  However, it was unable to get money from its creditors.  Therefore, the company will be liquidated and all assets sold off (Yonhap).  As a result of the news, many Hanjin ships were denied entry at ports for fear that payments would not be made (BBC).  The fall of Hanjin also means that most of the companies seamen are suddenly out of a job.  Some analysts have commented that the failure of Hanjin may work to bring down overcapacity in the shipping industry down to a sustainable level, arguing that a crash of another major Korean shipping company was unlikely (BBC).

91203982_2fee3fd1-012d-4f3e-80f3-aba39e4933dc(Image: Hanjin employees lobbying to save their company.  Source: BBC)

mw-ev014_hanjin_20160830232802_zh(Image: Cargo sitting on a Hanjin ship in a German port.  Source: MarketWatch)

Politics – Choi-gate has continued to claim victims throughout every aspect of life in South Korea.  This week, two different arrest warrants were issued.  On Wednesday, Special Prosecutors formally arrested Choi Kyung-hee, the ex-head of Ehwa University.  She has been charged with giving admissions and grading favors to Choi Soon-sil’s daughter (Korea Times). Last month, Choi Kyung-hee avoided arrest when her name was brought before the court.  De-facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, also had a warrant issued for his arrest when his name came up a second time in court.  Lee was arrested on the same day, charged with paying over 40 billion won to get the National Pension Service to back a controversial merger (Yonhap).  These arrests come as Park is still waiting for the Constitutional Court to make their decision on her impeachment.

Culture – South Korea is home to some of the worst air in the world.  According to the “State of Global Air 2017” report, South Korea’s population -weighted national average concentration of PM2.5–ultra-fine particles or matter of a diameter of at least 2.5 microns–was 29 micrograms in 2015, well above the OECD average of 15 micrograms (Korea Herald).  Over the past 25 years, South Korea’s PM2.5 problem has gotten worse while the OECD average has gotten better.  In 1990, the OECD average was 17 micrograms while Korea’s average was 26 micrograms (Korea Herald).  Many point to China as the culprit, but the South Korean government highlights emissions from diesel engines.  To combat this, the Environmental Ministry rolled out anti-yellow dust measures in June.  This plan did not garner the public’s interest (Korea Herald).

North Korea

North Koreans have not heard of the death of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jung-un’s half brother.  State media has not reacted to the slew of media reports covering the news.  A source cited in the Korea Herald commented that he thought Kim Jung-un was the oldest son of Kim Jung-il (Korea Herald).  As Pyongyang looks to strengthen its hold on power, the government may suppress news of Kim Jung-nam’s death due to his close ties to China.  Despite the lack of official coverage in North Korea, some reports of Kim Jung-nam’s death have gone viral in the border region (Korea Herald).

Leadership Alert: Kim Jung-un sacks Head of Spy Agency

Reports on Friday suggest that Kim Jung-un has relieved the Minister of State Security Kim Wong-hong, 72.  Kim was also demoted from full general to major general, according to the Korean Ministry of Unification (based in Seoul).  He was demoted and let go after an internal probe found the Ministry of State Security had abused its power (Yonhap).  Typically the North Korean Ministry of State Security oversees prison camps, follows reactionary groups within North Korean society, and arrests those who flee the country.

The removal of Kim from power is a political move meant to consolidate power by Kim Jung-un.  However, Jeong Joon-hee, a spokesman at the Ministry of Unification, argued that such a move may weaken the relationship between Kim Jung-un and the elites in North Korea as many start to fear for their jobs (Yonhap).  While shoring up some support within the upper circles, this may give Kim Jung-un more support from the masses, though many typically focus on the day to day necessities and not what goes on in the government.  Either way, this is yet another purge undertaken by Kim Jung-un since he has taken over the reigns of North Korea.

Breaking News: Arrest Warrant wanted For Samsung Head

k2017011500130-6501(Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong.  Photo: Korea Times)

The Special Prosecutor in South Korea requested an arrest warrant for Samsung’s de-facto leader Lee Jae-yong.  Lee was questioned by an independent council team as a bribery suspect Thursday (Yonhap).  Currently, Lee is the Vice Chairman of Samsung Electronics, but is the only son of the incapacitated Samsung Chairman Lee Kun-hee.

During the scandal, Samsung was at the center of a few shady deals.  In August of 2015, the conglomerate signed a 22 billion won contract with a German company owned by a person in the midst of the scandal.  A few months later, in October of the same year, Samsung made a 20.4 billion won donation to two foundations set up by Choi Soon-sil; in 2016, Samsung became the biggest local contributor to those foundations (Yonhap).  In return for such moves, the Blue House supposedly pressured the National Pension Service to support the merger of Samsung C&T and Cheil Industries, a decision for which the NPS held the deciding vote (Korea Times).  The warrant was sought by the prosecutor on the grounds that such donations were bribes to gain political favors (NY Times).

The request for a warrant was pushed back until Monday since the Special Prosecutor wanted to weight the economic implications of Lee’s arrest (CNBC).  As one of South Korea’s largest conglomerates, some economic impact is certainly possible.  Samsung, however, may face more challenges internally.  The arrest will open a power vacuum within the company, making it difficult for Samsung to push through its reconstruction and merger and acquisitions campaigns (Korea Herald).

An arrest warrant against Lee casts more speculation against the president in the face of an already damning political scandal which has rocked the nation and resulted in the impeachment of Park Geun-hye on December 9 by the National Assembly.