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.

 

Daily Update–June 15: Statement on Otto Warmbier Case

In yesterday’s Daily Update, I reported on the story of Otto Warmbier who had been recently medevacked from Pyongyang. Today, his doctors said that Mr. Warmbier had extensive loss of brain tissue yet showed no signs of trauma. Dr. Kanter, head of the neurocritical care program at University of Cincinnati Health, described Warmbier’s state as one of “unresponsive wakefullness,” adding that he seemed to have no understanding of language or oral commands (NPR).

Warmbier’s father also spoke out today. During a press conference, Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, blasted the North Korea regime for the brutal treatment of his son, arguing that their was no reason for North Korea to deny him top medical care (USA Today). The elder Warmbier wore the same beige jacket his son confessed in after an hour-long show trial in March of 2016. Fred Warmbier also denied the story given by North Korean officials as to why Otto came home in a coma (NY Times). The elder Warmbier blasted the North Korean regime and the Obama administration while praising the actions of President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Ambassador Joesph Yun, the State Department’s Special Envoy for North Korean Affairs.

The story of Otto Warmbier is tragic. A promising, young college student ripped from his daily life in a heartbeat, only to return to his family and country in a dire state. North Korea’s abhorrent treatment of Warmbier–hiding the neurological issue, denying Sweedish consular access, and denial of proper medical treatment–are grim reminders of reality in the secluded state.[1] A proper and swift response is required to ensure Pyongyang understands that the inhuman treatment of foreigners will not be tolerated. We at The Korea Page would like to send out our thoughts to the Warmbier family and we also wish Otto a swift recovery. No family should have to suffer at the hands of another state as the Warmbiers have.

North Korea still holds 3 Americans hostage. During his trip to secure Warmbier, Joesph Yun was able to see the other three and said they are in a healthy state (Washington Post). Those in custody in North Korea are Kim Dong-chol, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Sang-duk. The Korea Page would like to also send our thoughts out to these three men and their families.

Notes:

[1] Since the United States does not have a relationship, diplomatically, with North Korea, all Americans visiting, detained, and in the country are represented within North Korea by the Sweedish Embassy in Pyongyang.

Corrections: Minor editing changes to ensure proper grammar was used in the post. (6/18)

Daily Update: Manchester Statment

On May 22, as an Ariana Grande concert was winding down in the Manchester Arena, an explosion rocked through the foyer of the venue around 10:30 pm. The blast killed 22 people, the youngest an eight-year-old girl by the name of Saffie Rose Roussos (NY Times). Another 59 were wounded in the attack, many under the age of 16 years old. Today, our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims, survivors, and their families as they just begin to cope with the senseless actions of those horrifying hours.

The attacker, a 22-year-old British native who was of Libyan descent, died in the attack. At the time of the attack, he was known to British intelligence agencies, but was not under investigation or considered a high risk (The Guardian). Following the attack, police conducted a raid on his residence to collect information vital to the counterterrorism investigation now under way (Sky News). Another was arrested following the attack (The Daily Star).[1]

The attack was widely condemned by political leaders the world over. British Prime Minister Theresa May, in a statement, called the attack “sickening” and said that “the spirit of Britain is far mightier than the sick plots of terrorists” (CBS).  The terror level in Britain has been raised to critical for the first time in almost a decade. American President Donald Trump called the attack a “horrible thing” while chastising the attacker as an “evil loser” (NBC). Korea strongly condemned the attack as well. In a statement, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Cho Jun-hyuk called the attack “barbaric” and that South Korea “cannot hide shock and anger over the many lives lost” (Yonhap).

We at The Korea Page find the attack appalling and senseless. Any life taken is the shattering of dreams, destruction of possibilities, and elimination of promise from a world in desperate need of all of those things. These feelings are compounded when the target of such asinine violence is children. We also want to express our most heartfelt appreciation for those first responders and citizens who stepped up in a time of desperation to assist strangers in their time of peril. You all are the soft hearts which make Manchester the city it is.

There is nothing that words alone can do but show solidarity to those who are experiencing their hardest times. Words, though powerful, tend to lack the comforting aspect which so many are in need of. To show solidarity with those affected by this tragedy, I implore all you readers to take a moment to reflect and send your thoughts out to Manchester tonight before you go to sleep or this morning before work or before you take a bite of lunch. Where ever we are, let’s show those who wish to harm us that they can and will not break our spirit. As humans, let’s show those who wish to break us apart, that through tragedy we grow, through tragedy we develop into more global and connected citizens. Let our actions speak louder than our words as we all work to assist, in whatever fashion we can, to show the citizens of Manchester that we hold them in our hearts, in our minds, and in our prayers.[2]

[1] I am consciously not listing the names of those involved in the attack in order to keep the focus on those who lost their lives on Monday.

[2] Instead of restarting Daily Updates tonight, I felt this to be more appropriate. Normal posting will resume tomorrow.