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)

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.

Breaking News: South Korea’s New President

Exit polls are saying that Moon Jae-in has won South Korea’s 2017 election with around 41% of the overall vote. The National Election Commission is set to start counting votes and will offically announce a winner in the wee hours of the morning. Once announced the winner, Moon Jae-in will be automatically sworn in and begin his term as president (Korea Times).

Moon’s victory marks a major shift for Korea’s highest office; for the first time in a decade the liberal party has control of the Blue House and the National Assembly. (Will write a longer analysis this week to post.)

Breaking News: Indicments For Choi Scandal

The prosecutor investigating the Choi scandal released its first wave of indictments on Monday. First, the SK Chairman avoided prosecution. But others were not as lucky.

Lotte Chairman Shin Dong-bin was indicted on charges levied against him, stemming from a donation of 7 million won to the K Sports Foundation, a foundation run by Choi (Yonhap).

Park Guen-hye, the embattled ex-president, was also indicted on charges of bribery, peddling, and sharing of classified information. She has been in custody since the end of March (Yonhap).

Breaking News: Pence in Korea

American Vice President Mike Pence landed in Seoul on Sunday for a three-day visit. On Monday Pence will meet with Hwang Kyo-ahn, acting president of South Korea, and Chung Sye-kyun, current speaker of the National Assembly. On Tuesday, he will deliver a speech at an event hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea. Following his speech, Pence will depart for Japan (Yonhap).

Pence is the highest official in the Trump administration to make a trip to Korea, following Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis. North Korea is likely to be the topic of discussion, as Pence has to reinforce American interests in Korea, while also ameliorating fears that an American preemptive strike is likely. Pence most likely will push a policy of “maximum pressure and engagement.” According to reports by the Associated Press, “maximum pressure and engagement” is the policy the Trump administration settled on after a two-month review of North Korea policy (AP). Pence is also likely to push THAAD deployment to a shifting Korean political landscape.

The trip comes after a load of political headlines from North Korea ranging from missile tests, to parades and new missiles. Pence will have a difficult job, but not an insurmountable one.

(I will write a small piece on Pence’s trip to Korea later this week.)

Breaking News: North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly Convenes

(Image: Kim Jung-in holding up the Supreme People’s Assembly card. Source: Yahoo News)

North Korea opened a meeting of the Supreme Peole’s Assembly on April 11 (Yahoo News). The meeting comes at a time when North Korea is behaving belligerently, with many looking towards the outcomes for directions Pyongyang may pursue.

The docket remains unknown for now, though a few predictions can be made. Kim Jung-un will most likely make American aggression–THAAD deployment and deployment of Carl Vinson strike group–a key element of the meeting, using it to bolster support for the byungjin line–domestic nuclear and economic advancement. Other topics may include domestic shifts in economic production, political leadership, and/or political structure. Following with trends, Kim most likely will make a push for further scientific development in North Korea (CNBC).

In the past, the Supreme People’s Assembly has acted as a rubber stamp for the regime. Though the content of the meeting is unknown at the moment–I will write a more in depth post when the meeting is over–whatever Kim decides for the country is most likely to pass.