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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–June 14

South Korea

Politics–China, ostensibly to see if the radar of THAAD reaches into its territory, recently asked Seoul if they could perform a site inspection of the deployment. According to a source, Beijing was making the claims “through various claims” (Choson Ilbo). THAAD has rocked South Korea, as well as the entire region, into a political parlay in which there appears to be no middle ground. Before being impeached, Park Geun-hye was a fervent defender of the deployment and made diplomatic visits to convince others to come around to the system (The Korea Page). However, in his brief tenure, South Korean President Moon Jae-in has called for deployment to be suspended while an environmental impact assessment is completed, a process which could take up to a year (Military.com). China and Russia have taken stands against the deployment (Reuters; Sputnik). Even North Korea has tried some interesting tactics and was recently accused of spying on the system (Joongang Ilbo). THAAD will continue to be a thorny issue in the region, pitting one nation against another.

Culture–Yesterday, an explosion rocked Yonsei University, injuring a sole professor. Today, police arrested the culprit, a 25-year old graduate student who confessed to making the bomb and placing on his professor’s office door (Joongang Ilbo). The bomb was made out of a tumblr filled with small bolts. Kim, the student, said he made the explosive out of spite of the professor after being “told off” about his thesis (Yonhap). The professor is currently being treated for minor burns.

North Korea

Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, was medevaced from North Korea last night. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, in brief remarks, that Warmbier’s release was “at the direction of the president,” though refused to make further comments out of respect to the family (Rex Tillerson Remarks on Otto Warmbier). Officials told Warmbier’s family that he contracted botulism and fell into a coma after being given a sleeping pill shortly after his sentencing in March of last year (USA Today). The family was alerted last week about Otto’s health in a phone call (Fox News). Upon arriving home, Warmbier was rushed to a hospital and nothing is known of his condition at the moment. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea for “anti-state” acts in early March of 2016 after a one-hour trail (CNN). He was accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from an employees only floor at his hotel and arrested at Sunan International Airport as he was boarding his flight home in January of 2016. His release comes as Dennis Rodman makes another visit to North Korea. A State Department spokesperson unequivocally denied that Rodman had any part in securing the release of Warmbier and was unable to cover issues of his health or the exact timeline of his release (State Department Press Briefing 6/13/2017). Currently, Otto is in an Ohio hospital.[1]

Notes:

[1] An interesting read on how North Korea treats foreigners in captivity can be found in the New York Times.

Correction: June 15: An eariler version of this post wrongly stated that Warmbier was accused of taking the poster from his hotel room. The poster he was accused of taking was located in an employees only floor of the hotel.

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.

Daily Update: June 6–North Korean Missile Launch

Early in the morning of June 8, North Korea launched a salvo of missiles from Wonson, off its Eastern Coast (The Korea Page). Pyongyang has constantly evoked such strategies to find a course of action which ensures technological advancement with minimal retaliatory actions from the international community. So what do we know about North Korea’s latest missile launch and how has the political situation moved since?

North Korea fired off several anti-ship cruise missiles from its east coast, all of which flew about 200km (Joongang Daily). The tests showcase North Korea’s technological capabilities in light of sanctions ostensibly limiting the cash and technology required for continued testing. The missiles were fired in the direction of the East Sea (Yonhap). President Moon conviened the Security Council in the hours following the test.

Domestically, motivations for the launch can be difficult to parse. The two most likely scenarios are 1) North Korea is protesting the recent protest of THAAD in Korea and new rounds of sanctions by the UNSC or 2) that North Korea is still trying to attempt to push the envelope to see what it can get away with. As of writing, North Korea has yet to release any communication regarding the test.

International responses to the test have been minimal with several leaders not yet responding to the test of writing. American Missile Defense Agency chief, Vice Admiral James Syring, showed concern on the North Korea issue, saying that America is not comfortably ahead of the issue (Yonhap). President Trump has yet to respond.

The test brings the political parlay over THAAD deployment right back to the forefront. Moon Jae-in, a long time THAAD opponent, has vehemently opposed the deployment since being elected. He has called it a hasty maneuver meant to be a fait accompli and accused the Defense Ministry of foregoing required environmental tests before the system became operational (NY Times). An aid to Moon said, “we are skeptical if the deployment was really urgent enough to pass over transparency and procedures required by law,” in a statement which highlighted the Blue House’s push to implement a long environmental survey despite the long time required to complete the test (Joongang Daily). The Barun and Liberty Korea Parties–the two main conservative parties–both released statements calling for the urgent deployment of THAAD (Yonhap). In light of today’s test, THAAD will remain a contentious issue which the Blue House is likely to stall as long as humanly possible.

The other item under scrutiny from North Korea is the recently adopted UNSCR 2356 which froze the travel of 14 individuals and the assets of 4 companies (UNSCR 2356). In an editorial in the state-run Rodong Shinmun, North Korea said the international community is “pressing this panic button,” and “desperate in their vicious attempts to put sanctions and pressure to bear upon against the DPRK” (Rodong Shinmun). North Korea has a storied history of opposing sanctions policy, citing, as in the above editoral, the size of America’s nuclear arsenal and military as evidence of the need for continued pursuit of nuclear weapons. “Whatever sanctions and pressure may follow, we will not flinch from the road to build up nuclear forces … and will move forward towards the final victory,” the Rodong team writes (Rodong Shinmun).[1]

As it stands, North Korea’s exact motivation is unknown, though based on the media attention towards sanctions policy, it is easily possible that today’s test was a protest of recent sanctions.

In South Korea, the test is winding through the typical process: Defense Ministry alerts the president/press, the Security Council is called to meet, and the press covers the updates as they come in. International leaders have remained quite, choosing to focus their attentions elsewhere for the time being.

Notes

[1] Rodong Shinmun is a state-run media outlet in North Korea is cited here to provide a North Korean mindset on recent sanctions policy. Any statement of fact or opinion in Rodong Shinmun must be read with proper context and attention to detail.