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Otto Frederick Warmbier (December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American university student who, while visiting North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labor after being convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.
Two months after his imprisonment, Warmbier suffered severe neurological injury from an unknown cause. North Korean authorities said Warmbier's coma was a result of botulism and a sleeping pill, although U.S. physicians found no evidence of botulism. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier's release, and Warmbier was released in June 2017, while in a coma after nearly 18 months in captivity. Warmbier arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 and was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment.
Warmbier died on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States. Some U.S. officials blamed North Korea for his death. He was one of 16 American citizens detained by North Korea since 1996, including three who are still in custody.Contents
Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, the oldest of three children of Fred and Cindy (née Garber) Warmbier, and was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Fred Warmbier, owns a metal-finishing company that was featured in Forbes in 2015 for its rapid growth. Otto had two siblings, a brother, Austin, and a sister, Greta.
His maternal grandfather was Charles Garber, a pharmacist in Cincinnati, who was active in the Jewish community. In 2014, Fred contributed to The New York Times' blog titled You're the Boss about running a small business. Otto worked as an intern at the company from 2010 to 2013.
Warmbier graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013 as salutatorian, the second-highest ranking student in his class. He was considered popular and studious, and played on the football team. His coach said he was a gifted player and a natural leader.
Warmbier was enrolled at the University of Virginia, where he was studying for a double major degree in commerce and economics and did an exchange at the London School of Economics. His minor was in global sustainability. He was a third-year student when he traveled to China, followed by a side-trip to North Korea.
He was a brother of the Theta Chi fraternity. Warmbier's mother was Jewish, and he was active in the Hillel Jewish campus organization at the University of Virginia. He had visited Israel in a Birthright Israel heritage trip for young Jewish adults, a visit he described in a blog post.
In May 2017 the Washington Post interviewed some of Warmbier's college friends, who described him, according to the paper, as a "sports fan who can reel off stats about seemingly any team, a friendly Midwesterner who can break down underground rap lyrics (and craft some of his own), a deep thinker who would challenge himself and others to question their place in the world, a guy from an entrepreneurial family who ate half-price sushi, an insatiably curious person with a strong work ethic and a delight in the ridiculous."Trip to North Korea The Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where the alleged theft took place
Fred Warmbier stated that his son Otto was traveling in China at the end of 2015 when he saw a company offering trips to North Korea. He decided to go because he was adventurous, according to his father. The senior Warmbier said that the China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, appealed to young Westerners with slogans such as "This is the trip your parents don't want you to take!" and advertised the trip as safe for U.S. citizens.
Warmbier traveled to North Korea for a five-day New Year's tour of the country organized by Young Pioneer Tours. Ten other U.S. citizens were in his tour group. The tour group celebrated New Year's Eve by carousing in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square before returning to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where they were staying, and drinking further. Early in the morning of New Year's Day, Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a propaganda poster from a staff-only area of the hotel. The poster stated, "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il's patriotism!" Harming or stealing such items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the North Korean government.Arrest and conviction
On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport just prior to departing North Korea. Danny Gratton, a British member of Warmbier's tour group, witnessed the arrest. He said:
"No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, 'Well, that's the last we'll see of you.' There's a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn't resist. He didn't look scared. He sort of half-smiled."
The others in his tour group left the country without incident.
North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) initially described Warmbier's crime as "a hostile act against the state," without specifying further details. In a press conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier, reading from a prepared statement, confessed that he had attempted to steal a propaganda poster from a restricted staff-only area of the second floor of the Yanggakdo Hotel to take back to the United States. It is not known whether the confession was forced, as Warmbier never regained consciousness after his return to the U.S. However, various sources, including Gratton, stated that he was clearly under duress. Former prisoners of North Korea have later recanted their confessions after their release, stating they were made under duress.
Warmbier's confession also stated that he had plotted to steal the poster at the behest of a Methodist church in his hometown, and a secret society at the University of Virginia that he wished to join, both of whom he said were allied with the Central Intelligence Agency. These claims, which Time called "fanciful" and "implausible," were disputed by both the church and the University society named by Warmbier. The New York Times remarked that "the unlikely nature of the details suggested the script had been written by Mr. Warmbier's North Korean interrogators."
Warmbier is not the first person to have been arrested for a poster-related offense. A private Dutch collector, who owned over a thousand of their posters, was arrested on charges of espionage in 2010 during one of his semi-annual visits to buy more. He was similarly threatened with 15 years imprisonment, but was released after two weeks upon signing a forced confession. Another collector of North Korean posters, David Heather, published an illustrated book of their posters, and notes that about 1,000 artists work in a large complex in North Korea producing them. Older posters have been exhibited in museums outside of North Korea, while some private companies have been selling them for years.
On March 16, 2016, a few hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met in New York with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for Warmbier's release, Warmbier was tried and convicted for the theft of the propaganda poster from a restricted area of the hotel. Evidence at his trial, which lasted one hour, included his confession, CCTV footage, fingerprint evidence, and witness testimony. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Human Rights Watch called the hearing a kangaroo court and described the sentencing as "outrageous and shocking." U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated it was clear that North Korea used arrested American citizens for political purposes despite its claims to the contrary. Richardson and some news media have suggested that the harsh sentence was in response to heightened tensions with the U.S.
A video purporting to show the theft was released by KCNA on March 18, 2016. In the low-resolution video, a figure removes the poster from the wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall.
In May 2017, Fred Warmbier said he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea. He has claimed that the Obama administration had encouraged them to keep a low profile about their son's situation.Release
On June 12, 2017, Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, announced that North Korea had released Warmbier. Tillerson also announced that the U.S. State Department secured Warmbier's release at the direction of President Donald Trump. Tillerson said that the State Department continues discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.
Subsequent media reports revealed that at a meeting in New York on June 6, North Korean officials had advised U.S. State Department Special Representative Joseph Yun that Warmbier had contracted food-borne botulism shortly after his sentencing, and had fallen into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. A delegation headed by Yun flew to Pyongyang to oversee Warmbier's repatriation to the U.S.
After 17 months in prison, Warmbier, in a comatose state, was flown to Cincinnati, Ohio, arriving in the evening of June 13, 2017. He was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors tried to determine what caused his coma and if there were signs of recovery.Medical condition
Warmbier's physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center stated that he was in "a state of unresponsive wakefulness," a condition commonly known as persistent vegetative state. He was able to breathe on his own and blink his eyes, but otherwise showed no signs of awareness of his environment, such as understanding language, nor did he initiate any purposeful movements.
Medical records from North Korea showed that Warmbier had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. During his release, the North Koreans provided a disk containing two magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain studies, dated April and July 2016, showing damage to the brain.
According to his medical team, brain scans revealed Warmbier had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain, consistent with a cardiopulmonary event that caused the brain to be deprived of oxygen. Doctors said they did not know what caused the cardiac arrest, but that it could have been triggered by a respiratory arrest, while a neurointensive care specialist at the hospital stated that there was no evidence indicating botulism. They said physicians found no evidence of physical abuse or torture; scans of Warmbier's neck and head were normal outside of the brain injury.
Warmbier's father held a press conference on June 15, but declined to answer a reporter's question as to whether or not the neurological injury was caused by an assault, saying he would let the doctors make that determination. He stated that they did not believe anything the North Koreans told them. He expressed anger at the North Koreans for his son's condition, saying, "There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret, and denied him top-notch medical care for so long."
North Korean officials said their country was the "biggest victim" from his death as a result of a "smear campaign," stating their treatment of him was "humanitarian." A spokesman added,
"Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatments and care with all sincerity on humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S., considering that his health got worse."Death and public reactions Countless innocent men and women have died at the hands of North Korea..., but the singular case of Otto Warmbier touches the American heart like no other. Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.
Warmbier died in the hospital at 2:20 p.m. on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22. His family issued a statement expressing their sadness, thanking the hospital staff for their actions. President Trump issued a statement regarding Warmbier's death: "There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto's family and friends, and all who loved him."
At the request of Warmbier's family, an autopsy was not performed, and only a postmortem external examination was conducted. Doctors speculated that the cause of death could have been a blood clot, pneumonia, sepsis or kidney failure. Sleeping pills could have caused Warmbier to stop breathing if he had botulism and was paralyzed from it. The University of Cincinnati doctors found no evidence of botulism, but several neurologists said that botulism cannot be ruled out, given the length of time before Warmbier's return to the US.
After his death, Young Pioneers, the tour company that organized the trip for Warmbier, announced that it would no longer accept American citizens on its tours. One U.S. official notes that the State Department's website has for years strongly warned Americans not to travel to North Korea.
A funeral for Warmbier was held on June 22 at Wyoming High School, with more than 2,500 mourners attending. He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio, and students tied ribbons on every tree and pole along the three-mile route taken by the funeral procession from the high school to the cemetery.See also