tto Warmbier isn't a household name to many, but his story is a stark reminder for many that North Korea is one of the most unknown places on Earth. It has a regime that heavily emphasizes on secrecy, so much so that top U.S officials believe that many North Korean government officials don't know many aspects of what the regime has planned for the future on specific issues, something that only a very minor select few within the North Korean regime have.
The story of this young man from the state of Ohio remains a mystery, and is a cautionary tale for many foreigners from the West trying to visit North Korea.
5 years ago, in January of 2016, Otto Warmbier was scheduled to begin a study-abroad program in Hong Kong. Therefore, in order to enjoy himself before the grind of a student began, he decided to join a tourist group in December of 2015 and visit North Korea for a few days. He joined fellow tourists from abroad, and was very curious about the North Korean culture. Being an avid traveler, it was no surprise that Warmbier wanted something unknown and exciting; he already travelled through many lands prior to this infamous trip.
Warmbier arrived in North Korea in late December, and in a matter of days, the mystery of what really happened to him began.
Early on in the trip, the propaganda in Pyongyang was extremely noticeable for the tourists, with America being labelled as the "Imperial Enemy". This was the new nickname for Warmbier, one of the few Americans in the otherwise European and Canadian tourist group. The group visited 70 foot bronze statues of the first two supreme leaders of North Korea, and as Warmbier learned of the country's history, how sacred certain things were became more apparent.
On New Year's Eve, Warmbier's tourist group visited a bar in Pyongyang, and later celebrated the arrival of 2016 in the city's main square with thousands of other citizens. The hotel that Warmbier's group was staying at contained a bowling alley, a bar, a massage parlor, and a sauna. This resulted in many people in Warmbier's group going their separate ways, enjoying what the hotel had to offer. In the coming hours, the sequence of events that would alter Warmbier's young life for the worst began to really take into affect.
Somewhere between midnight and 4 am on January 1st, 2016, Warmbier allegedly removed a propaganda poster in a restricted floor of a Pyongyang hotel. The next day, on January 2nd, right when the group were leaving, Warmbier was stopped before boarding at the Pyongyang International airport. Danny Gratton, a British member of Warmbier's tourist group, witnessed the arrest:
"No words were spoken. Two guards just simply came over and tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just kind of said 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".
While the others in Warmbier's tourist group left North Korea without further incident, many were left frightened, but their fears as well as the fears of the Warmbier family increased as time went by. The fact that the United States had no diplomatic relationship with North Korea at that point in time made matters worse. Instead, Sweden was in direct talks with North Korean officials, trying to speak for Warmbier's safe return home on the United State's behalf.
6 weeks after his arrest, Warmbier made a public appearance in court, and while he looked relatively fine from a physical standpoint, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that he was under extreme mental duress. Warmbier's comments in court were truly frightening, because it was not only an admission of guilt but it was also a praise for the North Korean regime and their "humanity".
It's also alarming because it was reported by other American prisoners of the regime that they were interrogated for up to 15 hours a day, and this crumpled the prisoner's mental capacity to fight back, which resulted in a coerced confession in Warmbier's case.
What happened after he was whisked away by guards remains a mystery to this day, no one ever saw him in his physically capable self again from that moment forward.
With the 2016 US election coming up that year, rumors were circulating and reaching foreign intelligence from the North Korean regime that they were waiting on the results that November would bring before they could really decide to release Warmbier. At that point, no one has seen Warmbier for months, and his parents were campaigning feverishly to top US government officials for quick action.
Joseph Yun, the man who was the leading American diplomat and an expert in North Korean affairs, received intel from North Korean officials in June 2017 that Warmbier was reportedly unconscious. Yun quickly gathered a team of medical doctors and diplomats and after notifying the regime of their intentions to rescue Warmbier, headed for Pyongyang.
Upon landing, the regime still refused them to physically see Warmbier. According to Yun, they kept asking the following: "Otto committed this crime, so why should he escape due process"?
Finally, after a tense negotiation, Yun and his team were given the green light. They were led to the Friendship hospital, and what Yun saw changed any optimism of any good ending to this story.
At first, Yun questioned if this was really Warmbier, since the physical differences were so apparent given the pictures he saw of the young man. What Yun saw was a deteriorated man on a feeding tube, completely unresponsive to anything around him, which was confirmed by the doctor that was accompanying Yun. Warmbier was basically in a vegetative state, both blind and deaf, only possessing basic reflexes but the awareness was gone. Being a parent himself, Yun could only analyze Warmbier in complete sadness.
The North Korean doctors then explained to Yun and his team that Warmbier was in this state for over a year, and even arrived to the hospital in this condition. Upon examination, his body showed no evidence of physical trauma, so the questions were swirling for the American guests: What caused this deterioration?
The North Korean doctors then demanded that Yun and his team sign a document declaring that Warmbier was given good care during his stay at the hospital. With no evidence of physical trauma, and being given access to all of the brain scans which was for the purpose of transparency, and believing that this was necessary in order to bring Warmbier home, they agreed to this request.
Eventually, after more negotiations, Yun was granted access to take Warmbier home. But the task of telling his parents of their son's condition was the elephant in the room, and it dwarfed any celebration that the team had. When Warmbier eventually did return home, his parents were grief stricken with countless questions, but little did they know that their time with their son was rapidly coming to an end before it even began.
Less than a full week since returning home Warmbier died in his home 6 days later. His parents were offered the small positive that their son didn't die in a country like North Korea, and they turned their attention to speaking up about what happened to him for even a semblance of justice.
So what exactly happened? What caused a young, vibrant, energetic man in his early 20's to return home in a vegetative state? Well, from the brain scans, there was clear extensive brain damage, where Warmbier was denied oxygen to his brain for a few minutes. At least, this is the main reason that many believe. How they did it however is unclear 3 and half years later.
We might never get the answers, and Warmbier's parents may never get the full closure they rightfully deserve, but this dark story is a reminder to everyone how crimes are perceived in the secretive North Korea.