|Born||Otto Frederick Warmbier|
December 12, 1994
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
|Died||June 19, 2017 (aged 22)|
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
|Education||Wyoming High School (2013)|
|Alma mater||University of Virginia|
|Known for||Arrest and detainment in North Korea, death after detainment in North Korea|
Otto Frederick Warmbier December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea from March 2016 to June 2017 after being convicted of "hostile acts" against the country. Warmbier, then 21 years old, confessed to stealing a political propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier's release. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Warmbier's harsh sentence was a response to U.S. sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear activities. According to his father, Warmbier's confession was forced and he was abducted by the North Korean government for political purposes.
Warmbier fell into a coma in North Korea and was released in June 2017, after nearly 18 months in North Korea. According to North Korean authorities, Warmbier's coma was a result of botulism and a sleeping pill, but U.S. physicians cast doubt on that claim. Warmbier arrived in Cincinnati on June 13 and was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment. He was diagnosed with "severe neurological injury." His father believes that he was "terrorized and brutalized".
Warmbier died on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States.
Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, and graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013. At the time of his trip to North Korea, he was a junior 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. Otto was a brother of the Theta Chi fraternity. He was active in the Hillel Jewish campus organization, and participated in Birthright Israel. He left behind his parents, Cindy and Fred, and two younger siblings.
Trip to North Korea
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, who accused the tour operator of specifically targeting young Westerners with slogans like, "This is the trip your parents don't want you to take!" Fred Warmbier said the China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, 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. During his stay at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, Warmbier allegedly stole a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the hotel. The poster said, "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il's patriotism!". Harming such items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the government.
According to Warmbier's parents, the story about the poster was fabricated by authorities in order to detain him, and he was abducted at the airport when he was trying to leave the country. A video purporting to show the theft was released by state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 18, 2016. In the 18-second low-resolution video, an unrecognizable figure removes the sign from the wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. This action is shown twice, followed by a higher-resolution picture of the sign on the wall. The face of the person removing the poster is not seen during the video clip.
Arrest and conviction
On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested for theft just prior to departing North Korea from Pyongyang International Airport. The other guests in his tour group all left the country without incident. His crime was described as "a hostile act against the state" by the North Korean news agency KCNA.
In a news conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier confessed to stealing a piece of North Korean propaganda to take back to the United States. He said he stole the banner for the mother of a friend who wanted it as a souvenir to be hung on the wall of a church in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio. He was offered a used car worth $10,000 as payment or if he was detained and didn't return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation. Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was "suffering from very severe financial difficulties." He also said he was encouraged in his act by his desire to join the Z Society, a "semi-secret ring society" and philanthropic organization at the University of Virginia.
Warmbier's confession was as follows:
However, Warmbier's father later said the confession was coerced and that the story about the used car and church in Wyoming was nonsensical.
On March 16, 2016, two hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for Warmbier's release;Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Human Rights Watch called the sentencing "outrageous and shocking", while U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that it was clear that North Korea used arrested American citizens for political purposes despite its claims to the contrary. According to Warmbier's father, he and his wife were “urged to keep quiet” about their son's plight by the administration of Barack Obama.
In May 2017, Warmbier's father said he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea.
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. Warmbier's parents told The Washington Post that Warmbier was medically evacuated, saying they were told by North Korean officials that Warmbier contracted botulism sometime after his trial and fell into a coma after being given a sleeping pill. They learned he was in a coma only one week before his release. Richardson was in contact with the family and said Warmbier urgently needs medical attention.
After 17 months away, Warmbier was flown from New Chitose Airport to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and then to Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airportwhere he arrived shortly before 10:20 p.m local time on June 13, 2017, and was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors tried to determine what caused his coma and if there were signs of recoverable brain function. Prior to his arrival, a doctor with the Cincinnati Health Department discussed Warmbier's case and expressed skepticism over the claim that botulism or a sleeping pill caused the coma. Otto's father Fred believes that North Korea intentionally "terrorized and brutalized" his son.
His father reported that he had received a call from President Trump at his home asking about the welfare of his son and the family. He expressed that he had a kind and nice conversation. He also reported that Secretary Rex Tillerson and U.S. special representative Joseph Y. Yun had made the transition possible.
Medical condition and death
On June 15, 2017, physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center stated that Warmbier had suffered extensive brain damage, which is consistent with a cardiopulmonary event rather than a head injury, and there was no sign of physical abuse. Warmbier's father held a press conference that day, 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 had told them.
Neurologist Daniel Kanter, director of the neurocritical care program at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, said in a press conference on June 15 that the 22-year-old Warmbier 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 did not respond to his environment. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed he had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain.
Kanter stated that Warmbier's brain injury was typical of a cardiac arrest that caused the brain to be denied oxygen. Doctors also said that they did not find any evidence of physical abuse or torture; scans of Warmbier's neck and head were normal outside of the brain injury. Doctors said they did not know what caused the cardiac arrest, but that it could have been triggered by a respiratory arrest.
Brandon Foreman, a neurointensive care specialist at the hospital, confirmed that there was no sign of a current or past case of botulism, which can cause paralysis but not a coma.
Some medical records from North Korea were sent back with Warmbier, revealing he had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. Fred Warmbier 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."