Statement on Death of Otto Warmbier


(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]


(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).


(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).



[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.



Breaking News: Otto Warmbier Released

American student Otto Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea this morning in a coma and is on his way home to the United States. Warmbier was on a trip to the communist country when he was arrested and detained for trying to steal a propaganda poster.

More to come in tonight’s Daily Update.

Culture News Alert: Pokémon Go Released in Korea

Ninatic has released its most popular game, Pokémon Go, in Korea on Tuesday. The release came as an unexpected surprise for one of the world’s largest gaming communities.  Pokémon Go is available in Korean on the Apple App Store and on the Google Play Store (Korea Herald).

Pokémon Go was released to the world in July 2016 when it came out in the United States to major success, shaping the culture of handheld gaming.

A Korean release was delayed due to technical and political issues stemming from the game’s technology; Pokémon Go relies on GPS technology similar to Google Maps for location services, but Korean law forbids storage of map data overseas (Bustle; New York Times).  Google and the Korean government have been in a long dispute over the storage of map data.  The dispute has resulted in several high-profile denial of access results favoring the Korean government (Wall Street Journal).  The Korean version, according to reports, relies on publicly available map data to augment its location services for South Korea (Reuters).  This circumvents some of the regulations in place by the Korean government, but may limit the game in terms of number of Pokéstops and so forth–compared with the game in other countries like the United States and Japan.

Prior to the release, Pokémon Go created a virtual tourism site in Sokcho, as residents flocked there to play the game. Hotels and business even got in the action, creating maps of free wifi zones for visitors to access while they visited.  Sockcho was able to utilize the games augmented location systems due to a technicality in the map data storage laws (The Korea Page; The Guardian).

(Post has been updated with linked source material, including the article which sparked this post.)

Daily Update – September 19

South Korea

Politics – A few days after a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the southern South Korean city of Gyeongju, a 4.8 magnitude aftershock rattled through the city.  In light of the recent events, the South Korean government released new guidelines for buildings.  Future developments in Korea which are greater than 1 story must be earthquake resistant, while new buildings which are over 16 stories must be approved.  This is not the first push for earthquake resistant structures in South Korea; according to a statement by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, earthquake resistant buildings were introduced in Korea around 1988.  Currently, buildings three stories and higher are subjected to this measures.  These changes will take effect in January of next year.

South Korean president Park Geun-hae will host a gathering of officials for a workshop to discuss the security and economic issues facing South Korea.  The workshop will be attended by several high-ranking government officials, including Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, and will take place on Saturday.  North Korea’s September 9 nuclear test will take center at the workshop.  This is the first workshop of its kind since 2013.

Economy – Shin Dong-bin, the chief of Lotte, was summoned by state prosecutors to testify on a string of charges being levied against him.  The charges include embezzlement and breach of trust.  Shin apologized for the causing concerns, saying he will cooperate fully with the police investigation into Lotte Group.  Lotte has been embattled over a series of scandals – Shin and his brother were locked in a struggle for managerial powers, earlier this month Shin’s brother Dong-joo was questioned for embezzlement, and Lee In-won was found dead in an apparent suicide while waiting for a summons by prosecutors.  Shin was called as the probe was coming to an end.

Korean air is looking into a new funding strategy for the Hanjin Group.  Korean Air is the parent company of the Hanjin shipping group.  After the Korean air executive board, in an emergency meeting, failed to pass a 60 billion won into the company.  Hanjin Group chairman Cho Yang-ho vowed earlier this month to inject 100 billion won into the company, of which 40 million would be from his own estate.  The board did come to agreement on securing 60 million won in loans, but later reversed the decision after reaching the conclusion that the structure of the loan could be subject to breach of trust.  Last week, Cho injected 40 billion won into the company and Hanjin Shipping Chairwoman resented 10 billion won.  Hanjin officially declared bankruptcy on August 31, and a judge has ordered the group to return all its chartered ships to owners.

Culture – Chinese tourists amount to a huge economic and cultural exchange for South Korea.  However, in recent days, Chinese tourists have come under the spotlight for committing violent crimes in South Korea.  The most recent case was Sunday evening when a 61-year-old Korean woman died in a hospital on Jeju Island.  The woman was stabbed 8 times while praying in a chapel the day before, after which she made an emergency call while still conscience.  She died after being rushed to a hospital.  According to the Korea Times, police believe misogyny is the motive for the crime.

South Korea is calling on foreigners and Koreans to report errors on signs written in foreign languages.  Signs in public areas, such as subway stations, historic areas, tourist information centers, are the targets.  Experts will assess the claims received by the office, and will determine which signs are to be fixed.  Following this campaign, Seoul will launch a team of 80 foreigners from Japan, China and English-speaking countries to improve tourism services for foreigners.  These ideas are to assist in developing a more internationally competitive tourism market in Seoul City.  For those interested and in Korea, this Korea Times article has information on how and who to contact to report any errors.

North Korea

North Korea claimed it successfully tested a new rocket engine through official state media on Tuesday.  This comes after various trips to scientific sites by Kim Jung-un, adding to the possibility of a long-range missile test on the anniversary of the Foundation of the Worker’s Party on October 10.  This is the first military trip Kim has made since the September 9 nuclear test.  38North released an article with satilite images showing the preparations for the test dating September 17th.  This year has been highly provocative, with two nuclear tests and the possibility of more tests should raise caution and discussion throughout the world.

Leadership Watch

Today, Kim Jung-un was present at the Sohae testing site when North Korea conducted its ground test of a new missile engine.  After the test, Kim expressed his satisfaction at the result of the test, while also praising the scientists responsible for the test.  Kim also called for more efforts to develop space in the next five years, thus fulfilling the 5-year program for national aerospace development.  Kim’s comments shed a little light on the reasoning for the test, as it may lead to another satellite launch.  However, many are still skeptical and believe the test foreshadows a forthcoming missile test.

Yesterday, September 18, Kim Jung-un visited the Kosan Combined Fruit Farm.  While at the farm, Kim toured the room for revolutionary history teaching, lauded the history of the farm, and watched vehicles and forklifts in action on the farm.  This was Kim’s second visit to a farm last week; he also visited Farm 1116 on September 13.

(Note: Leadership watch source material is from North Korean official media and should be treated as such.  Today’s leadership watch articles were published on KNCA’s english website.)