Topics - The Tragedy of Otto Warmbier

 
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22-Year-Old Held Prisoner in North Korea 17 Months
Returned to the States in a Coma

"North Korea Destroyed Him"

 

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction
  • A Look at Otto Warmbier
  • North Korea - A Terrorist State
  • U.S. Citizens Held & Released
  • U.S. Citizens Still Prisoners

[KWE Note: If any information on this page of the Korean War Educator is inaccurate or incomplete, please contact Lynnita at lynnita@thekwe.org.]


Introduction

Otto Frederick Warmbier, 22, son of Fred and Cindy Warmbier of Wyoming, Ohio, died in a hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 19, 2017.  He had been held prisoner in North Korea for 17 months and was returned to the United States on "humanitarian grounds" on June 13, 2017, just six days before he died.

Otto arrived back in the States in a coma and with extensive brain damage.  Authorities said that Otto lapsed into a coma in March of 2016, shortly after being sentenced to 15 years hard labor in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang--an offense that NK officials said was a "crime against the state".

Pyongyang spokesmen contended that Otto slipped into a coma after contracting botulism and after being given a sleeping pill.  But American physicians who examined Warmbier in Cincinnati said there was no sign of botulism in his body.  Otto's parents tell a different story than Pyongyang officials.  They believe that their son was "brutalized and terrorized" by the North Korean government.
 


A Look at Otto

Otto Frederick Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the eldest of three children born to Fred Allan and Cynthia Jane (Cindy Garber) Warmbier.  He was reared in the Cincinnati area, where he attended Wyoming (Ohio) High School.  He played on the school's soccer team.  He was the class salutatorian when he graduated from high school in 2013.

After high school Otto was admitted to the University of Virginia in the fall of 2013, where he had a double major in commerce and economics.  He planned a career in financing.  At the time of his arrest he was a three-year student at UVA.  He was scheduled to graduate with the Class of 2017, but he already had enough credits to graduate.

He was an Echols Scholar, a program designed for students demonstrating extraordinary intellectual curiosity and self-motivation.  He worked on the Student Council's Sustainability Committee and was involved with Hillel, a Jewish community organization.  He was an exchange student at the London School of Economics and had traveled to several countries in his short lifetime. 

Theta Chi Brother

Otto was a member of the Xi Chapter of Theta Chi fraternity, having joined that organization in the spring of 2014.  Upon receiving news of Otto's death, a statement from Theta Chi's current president, Austin Simpson, and past president, Carter Levinson, read:

“To many of us at UVA, Otto embodied the ideal student. He had his individual quirks that UVA loves, recognizes, and encourages. He was full of adventure and embodied the questioning spirit of forward progress that academics long for. He symbolized individualism, unabated by anything or anyone around him.

But in order to know who Otto truly was, we must lean on those that knew him. To us, Otto was a source of inspiration. He was a model for drive, energy, and compassion. He had the ability to put his nose to the grindstone and get things done. He represented the epitome of friendship. He had an ability to feel when his friends were in need, and he would give anything to offer them an assisting hand.

What occurred to Otto can never be changed or explained. We cannot fathom what he went through, however we can learn from his life. We can all, in some way, be benefited by being more like Otto.”

Fraternity brother Billy Burgess spoke at a vigil held in Otto's memory at the University of Virginia about Otto’s special relationship with Martin Powell, an honorary Theta Chi brother living with cerebral palsy. Warmbier visited Powell frequently, brought him to UVA sporting events, and helped him to reconnect with the fraternity.

Tour of North Korea

In 2016 Otto Warmbier was scheduled to participate in a 10-day tour of the Asian financial capitals of Hong Kong and Singapore.  The tour was sponsored by the University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce.  Prior to flying to Beijing to join the McIntire tour, Otto signed up to travel to North Korea with a Chinese tour company entitled Young Pioneer Tours.  The company markets itself as providing "budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from."  Among the countries they offer tours to are North Korea, Afghanistan, lran, Chernobyl, Cuba, Turkmenistan, etc.  Like most young Americans living in freedom in the USA, Otto Warmbier had no idea what dangers awaited him in communist North Korea.  That country's leader by birth, Kim Jung Un, is a rash, brutal dictator whose people starve while he lives in luxury.  North Korea has been declared a terrorist state by the United States government.  In spite of the fact that officials in the United States and Canada warn against it, some 6,000 Westerners visit North Korea every year.

In January 2016 Otto was arrested for purportedly stealing a propaganda poster from a staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang.  The arrest was made at Pyongyang International Airport just before Warmbier's flight to Beijing was scheduled to depart.  It was 20 days later before the North Korean government informed the public of the American's arrest.  Since the United States has no diplomatic relations with North Korea, only a Swedish embassy representative was allowed to visit Warmbier.

Witness to Warmbier's arrest was Danny Gratton, a sales manager from Stone, Staffordshire, England.  He met Otto Warmbier on the same Young Pioneer tour and was his roommate at the hotel in Pyongyang.  In an interview with Josh Rogin, a reporter with the Washington Post, he said, “Otto was just a really great lad who fell into the most horrendous situation that no one could ever believe.  It’s just something I think in the Western world we just can’t understand.  We just can’t grasp the evilness behind that dictatorship.”  Gratton was reportedly not interviewed by U.S. officials investigating Warmbier's imprisonment.

A one-day trial was held in March of 2016 and the guilty verdict of the North Korean court resulted in a sentence of 15 years hard labor for Warmbier.  The North Korean premise was that Otto had orders from the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming (Ohio) to steal the poster and bring it back to the States as a trophy in exchange for a used car worth $10,000.  Other than glimpses of their son on television segments, the Warmbiers did not see Otto until he was returned to the States in June 2017.

U.S. State Department representative Joseph Yun played a key role in obtaining the release of Otto Warmbier on June 13, 2017 on "humanitarian grounds".  Also working behind the scenes to push for his release were Long Island international defense lawyer (and University of Virginia alumnus) Michael Griffith and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson.

Otto was finally returned to the States in a coma and died at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Cincinnati on June 19, 2017. His funeral 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.  It was reported that 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. 

Otto's Survivors

Otto Warmbier is survived by his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier of Cincinnati, Ohio;  brother, Austin W. Warmbier; sister, Greta Warmbier; maternal grandmother, Frieda Donn Garber; and girlfriend, Alex Vagonia (UVa Class of 2017). He was preceded in death by his maternal grandfather Charles Garber, great-grandparents Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Garber and Mr. and Mrs. Morris Donn.


North Korea - A Terrorist State

The Warmbiers were interviewed by Fox News some three months after their son's death.  Fred and Cindy Warmbier wanted their fellow countrymen to know that they consider North Korea a terrorist state.  "North Korea is not a victim, they are terrorists.  They purposefully and intentionally injured Otto."

The couple told Fox what they experienced upon seeing their son after his return to the States. As they boarded the plane to see Otto for the first time in over a year, they said they heard "inhuman" howling.  They said that Otto was moaning and jerking violently, had a feeding tube coming out of his nose, and was blind and deaf.  He was unable to communicate with them.

When he died Otto's parents requested no autopsy.  Instead, the Hamilton County (Ohio) coroner conducted an external examination of Otto's body.  He said that he saw no concrete signs of torture.  He found at least ten "small scars" on Otto's body, as well as what appeared to be a tracheotomy scar to insert a breathing tube.  The coroner ruled Otto Warmbier's cause of death as brain damage caused by lack of oxygen from an unknown head injury that happened more than a year before Otto's death. 


U.S. Citizens Held in North Korea & Later Released 
 

Name Detained Released Reason for Detention (as stated by NK officials)
Hunziker, Evan 08/24/1996 11/27/1996 Illegally entering North Korea
Lee, Euna 03/17/2009 08/04/2009 Illegally entering North Korea
Ling, Laura 03/17/2009 08/04/2009 Illegally entering North Korea
Park, Robert 12/25/2009 02/06/2010 Illegally entering North Korea
Gomes, Aijalon 01/25/2010 08/26/2010 Illegally entering North Korea
Jun, Eddie Yong Su 11/01/2010 05/28/2011 "Committing a crime against North Korea"
Bae, Kenneth 11/01/2010 05/28/2011 Unauthorized religious activity
Newman, Merrill 10/26/2013 12/07/2013 Issues related to his service in Korean War
Miller, Matthew 04/10/2014 11/08/2014 "Acts hostile to the DPRK while entering under the guise of a tourist."  He had travelled to North Korea intending to get arrested.
Fowle, Jeffrey 05/04/2014 10/21/2014 Acting "contrary to the purpose of tourism" by leaving a Bible at a nightclub
Martinez, Arturo Pierre 11/10/2014 Pardoned, date unclear Illegally entering North Korea
Suh, Sandra 04/08/2015 04/08/2015 Deported for "covertly producing photos & videos to use in the anti-DPRK smear campaign"
Warmbier, Otto 01/02/2016 06/13/2017 Committing "hostile acts" against the DPRK by allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel.  Died six days after being released.

 


U.S. Citizens Still Held as Prisoners in North Korea

In addition to the American veterans of the Korean War who have been held captive by the North Korean government since the 1950s (and who might still be living in 2017), the following Americans are currently (October 2017) being held captive in communist North Korea:

Tony Kim (Kim Sang-duk) - arrested April 2017

Mr. Kim had spent a month teaching accounting at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), in North Korea’s capital.  That university is the only private educational institution in North Korea. It is run by a Korean-American professor and funded largely by Christian groups. It began offering classes in English to the North Korean elite in 2010.

Kim was boarding a plane to leave the country when he was arrested, according to the chancellor of the university, Chan-Mo Park.  He was arrested for "attempting to overthrow the government."  It has been suggested that he was arrested for actions associated with his volunteer work at an orphanage.  North Korea has arrested a number of missionaries for violating a ban on proselytizing that is considered a crime against the state.

Mr. Kim, who is in his 50s, had previously taught at Yanbian University of Science and Technology, an affiliated institute in the Chinese province of Jilin, near the North Korean border. He had most recently been living in North Korea with his wife, who is believed to still be in the country. Mr. Kim studied accounting at the University of California, Riverside and Aurora University, and worked as an accountant in the United States for more than a decade.

Kim Dong Chul - arrested in October 2015

Kim Dong-chul, an American businessman, was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016 for "spying" and other offenses.  He lived with his wife and two daughters in China on the border with North Korea.  He was the president of a trade and hospitality company.  Prior to his arrest he had been teaching a class in international finance and management at PUST.  He had been traveling back and forth from China and North Korea for years.

A month before his trial, Mr. Kim appeared at a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang and apologized for trying to steal military secrets in collusion with South Koreans. The South Korean spy agency denied any involvement in the matter.

Mr. Kim’s predicament was not known until January 2016, when the North Korean government allowed CNN to interview him in Pyongyang. At that time, Mr. Kim identified himself as a 62-year-old naturalized American citizen who lived in Fairfax, Virginia. Born in South Korea, he became a U.S. citizen in 1987.  He formerly ran a trading and hotel services company in Rason, a special economic zone that North Korea operates near its borders with China and Russia.

Kim Hak Song (Jin Xue Song) - detained May 6, 2017

Kim Hak-song is a self-proclaimed Christian missionary who managed the experimental farm at PUST's college of agriculture and life sciences.  He was concerned about North Korea's food shortage and wanted to improve the country's agricultural economy.  He was arrested on a China-bound train from Pyongyang on suspicion of "hostile acts" against the state.  Born in China, he studied at a university in California and became a U.S. citizen in the 2000's before moving back to China.

Nicholas Burns, a former U.S. Undersecretary of State noted, “The North Koreans have a history of taking American citizens hostage, detaining them illegally and without any rationale. They obviously do this in order to up the ante on the United States and perhaps have something to negotiate with the United States.”

A month after Otto Warmbier's death, President Donald J. Trump issued a travel ban to North Korea.  "US passports will be invalid for travel to, through and in North Korea, and individuals will be required to obtain a passport with a special validation in order to travel to or within North Korea," said Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman.  The ban came too late to save Otto Warmbier from the brutality of being a prisoner in North Korea.  But until the ban is lifted, the terrorist North Korean regime will not be able to destroy the lives of any more unsuspecting U.S. tourists who do not comprehend the evil and inhumanity that permeates Kim Jong Un's authoritarian state.

 
 
 

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