Otto Warmbier, the Cincinnati resident and University of Virginia college student who had been released by North Korea and returned home in a comatose state after nearly 18 months in captivity, died this past Monday at the age of 22. Warmbier had been repatriated in what doctors termed a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and had suffered a “severe neurological injury.” The cause of the injury was unclear, although the North Koreans claimed it was a complication of botulism. Sadly, he never regained consciousness, although his family clung to the belief that he had sensed he was home with loved ones.
In a world filled with senseless violence and wanton murder this heinous incident ranks near, if not at, the top. The NKs exhibited a prime example of their total disregard for human life. It is well-known that the NK government has no regard for the well-being of its own citizens. For example, there is ample evidence that other than a favored few who live very well, NK citizens have few or no daily necessities. In fact, many NKs are literally starving to death for lack of adequate food. Furthermore, arbitrary killings and imprisonment is commonplace. The government is dysfunctional, except for its ability to intimidate and beat down its citizens. It is a country in total disarray.
The Wambier saga resembles a plot out of a bad Hollywood movie. Briefly, Warmbier was convicted of “subversion” after he took a propaganda banner that was on display in the hotel in which his tour group was staying. The poster said “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-Il’s patriotism!” Innocuous enough. We’re not talking nuclear secrets here, folks. It may have been an ill-advised act, but it strikes me more as a lark a college student might pull not considering what the consequences might be. Probably, all he wanted was a “souvenir;” he saw the banner and took in on the spur of the moment. Only an irrational, paranoid country like NK would consider this to be “subversion.” Unbeknownst to Warmbier, however, the NK government considers this type of act to be subversion, which it takes very seriously. KCNA, the NK news agency, characterized it as a “hostile act against the state.”
Warmbier’s “trial” and conviction lasted all of one hour. Once he was sentenced and incarcerated the real nightmare began. It was very likely that captivity in an NK prison for any length of time would not end well, and, unfortunately for Warmbier, it didn’t.
Otto Frederick Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He was one of three children and was Jewish on his mother’s side. He was a bright young man. He was the salutatorian of his high school class, and he was majoring in commerce and economics at the University of Virginia.
At the end of 2015 while on vacation in China he spied an advertisement for a trip to NK. Most of us would be wary of such a trip, but Warmbier was a young college student and, as his father put it, “adventurous.” The China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, advertised the trip as “safe for US citizens,” so Warmbier probably figured, “why not?” He was not the only US citizen on the tour. There were ten others.
On the tour Warmbier became particularly friendly with a Brit named Danny Gratton. Gratton witnessed Warmbier’s arrest at the airport on January 2, 2016 as the group was preparing to leave the country and gave this chilling account. “No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. …… That was the last time I saw Otto, ever.” Surprisingly, there is no mention that the tour guide tried to intervene on Warmbier’s behalf or assist him in any way. In my experience, one of the major functions of a tour guide is to ensure the safety and security of the tourists in his or her care. The group then just left on their flight.
On February 29, 2016 Wambier “confessed” during a press conference. Does anyone belief it was genuine? Human Rights Watch deputy director Phil Robertson disparagingly characterized the process as a “kangaroo court.” As I said, Warmbier’s trial lasted all of one hour, and he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor, a preposterous sentence. HRW called it “outrageous and shocking.” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner opined that NK was using Wambier for “political purposes.” In my opinion Warmbier was a pawn caught up in the heightened military, political and diplomatic tensions between the US and NK.
Negotiations for Warmbier’s release had been ongoing for over a year to no avail. It was not disclosed to NK that Warmbier had a Jewish heritage, as it would have complicated matters and clearly illustrated the idiocy of NK’s assertion that he had acted on behalf of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, OH. In fact, Warmbier was very cognizant of his Jewish heritage. For example, he had travelled to Israel and had thoroughly enjoyed his experience there. He was especially “taken” with the Western Wall in Jerusalem. He had remarked “just being at a spot that has been so central to Judaism for thousands of years was completely surreal. The power that emanated from the wall showed on the faces of all those who were near it.”
Warmbier was released on June 12, 2017. Surprisingly, he was not the only American captive in NK. Wikipedia reports a total of 16 Americans have been detained on various charges since 1996, and three are still being held there.
Warmbier’s condition was extremely critical. As I said, doctors at the University of Cincinnati who examined described him as being “in a state of unresponsive wakefulness, what laymen would call a vegetative state. Brain scans disclosed he had suffered considerable loss of brain tissue consistent with oxygen deprivation. He was able to breath and blink his eyes, but, otherwise, he was completely unresponsive to his environment. Barring an autopsy, which the family has declined to authorize, we will likely never know for sure what happened to him.
This situation is outrageous beyond words. Condemnation has been universal. President Trump characterized it as a “total disgrace.” Senator John McCain, who knows a thing or two about being incarcerated and tortured by a foreign power, went even further, declaring Warmbier was “murdered by [NK] and the US cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers.”
So, what can we do about it, except bluster? Forget military action. That would likely provoke a major confrontation, perhaps with multiple countries, and no one wants to start a war over this. For years, the State Department has been warning Americans not to travel to NK. Yet, Warmbier and many others have done so. Perhaps’ an out and out ban (there’s that word, again) would be in order. In addition, perhaps, the US could impose more punitive sanctions, for example, penalize those foreign countries that do business with NK in some way. I would think that people smarter and better informed than me could come up with some ideas.
One thing is certain: the US cannot let this stand. It would embolden other rogue regimes to commit similar atrocities to our innocent citizens.