Otto Warmbier

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Otto Warmbier
Born Otto Frederick Warmbier
(1994-12-12)December 12, 1994
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
Died June 19, 2017(2017-06-19) (aged 22)
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
Nationality American
Education Wyoming High School (2013)
Alma mater University of Virginia
Known for Arrest and imprisonment in North Korea
Parent(s) Fred Warmbier, Cindy Warmbier (née Garber)
Country  North Korea
Detained January 2, 2016
Released June 12, 2017
Days in detention 527
Sentence 15 years of hard labor
Reason for detention Attempted theft of a propaganda poster

Otto Frederick Warmbier (December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American college student from Cincinnati, Ohio, who was arrested in North Korea in January 2016 for attempted theft, for which he was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. While incarcerated, he fell into a coma and never regained consciousness, dying in June 2017.

Warmbier was an Ohio native and the oldest of three siblings. He was traveling to Hong Kong for a study abroad program when he decided to visit North Korea on a guided tour. While there, he allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda poster, for which he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment with hard labor. Shortly after his sentencing, Warmbier suffered severe neurological injury from an unknown cause. North Korean authorities did not disclose his medical condition until June 2017, when they announced he had fallen into a coma as a result of botulism and a sleeping pill.

Warmbier was freed in June 2017, still in a comatose state after 17 months in captivity. He was repatriated to the United States, arriving in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13. He was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment, where his U.S. physicians found no evidence of botulism. Nevertheless, a coroner's report was unable to identify the cause of the injury, finding no obvious evidence of torture on Warmbier's body.[1] Nor did non-invasive internal scans find any signs of fractures to his skull.[2] Warmbier never regained consciousness and died on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States after his parents requested his feeding tube be removed.[2] U.S. officials blamed North Korea for his death.

Early life

Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto's parents, pose before the 2018 State of the Union Address

Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, the eldest of three children of Fred and Cindy Warmbier (née Garber), and was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio.[3][4] He attended Wyoming High School, where he was considered popular and studious, and graduated in 2013 as salutatorian, the second-highest ranking student in his class.[5][6] He would go on to enroll at the University of Virginia, where he was studying for a double major degree in commerce and economics and did a foreign exchange at the London School of Economics. His minor was in global sustainability.[5]

Trip to North Korea

Warmbier's father stated that his son, en route to Hong Kong to complete a study abroad program, 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.[7][8]

Warmbier traveled to North Korea for a five-day New Year's tour of the country. Ten other U.S. citizens were in his tour group.[9][10][11][12][13] The tour group celebrated New Year's Eve by carousing in Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Square before returning to their accommodations at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where they continued drinking alcohol.[14][15] 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.[16][17] 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.[18][19]


The Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where the alleged theft took place

On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport while awaiting departure from North Korea. Danny Gratton, a British member of Warmbier's tour group, witnessed the arrest.[20] 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.[14]

When the group's plane was about to leave the terminal, an official came aboard and announced "Otto is very sick and has been taken to the hospital."[21][a] The others in his tour group left the country without incident.[12]

North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) initially announced that Warmbier had been detained for "a hostile act against the state," without specifying further details.[12] North Korea refused to elaborate on the nature of his wrongdoing for six weeks.[21] 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.[23] 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.[14] Former prisoners of North Korea have later recanted their confessions after their release, stating they were made under duress.[24][25][26]

Warmbier's confession also stated that he had plotted to steal the poster at the behest of a Methodist church in his hometown and the Z Society, 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,"[21] were disputed by both the church and the Z Society.[23] 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."[27] U.S. negotiator Mickey Bergman later stated that Warmbier's family were advised to maintain silence about his Jewish heritage while he was under arrest, as negotiators believed that publicly repudiating Warmbier's purported affiliation with a Methodist church would antagonize the North Korean regime.[28]

Trial and conviction

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,[29][30] 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.[31][32] He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.[9][33] Human Rights Watch called the hearing a kangaroo court[34] and described the sentencing as "outrageous and shocking."[35] 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.[36]

Bill Richardson and some news media have suggested that the harsh sentence was in response to heightened tensions with the U.S.[26][35] On March 16, 2016, the BBC reported: "North Korea has ramped up its hostile rhetoric in recent weeks, after the UN imposed some of its toughest ever sanctions. The sanctions were a response to the North conducting its fourth nuclear test and launching a satellite into space, which was seen as a covert test of banned missile technology. Pyongyang has also been angered by the US and South Korea carrying out their annual military drills, which this year involve some 315,000 personnel."[35]

A video purporting to be the hotel's security-camera footage of the theft was released by KCNA on March 18, 2016. In the brief low-resolution video, time-stamped 1:57 a.m., a figure removes a poster from a corridor wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. The footage released does not display subsequent events.[37][16] Warmbier indicated in his confession that he abandoned the poster after discovering it was too large to carry away.[38][23]

A hotel staff member told the court: "When I got off work, there was nothing amiss. But when I returned, I thought someone had deliberately taken the slogan down, so I mobilized security to prevent damage to it and reported it to the authorities."[39]


Fred and Cindy Warmbier met with numerous Obama administration officials, including former Secretary of State John Kerry, and with the Swedish ambassador, who served as an interlocutor between the U.S. and North Korea.[40] In May 2017, Fred Warmbier said that the Obama administration had encouraged them to keep a low profile about their son's situation, but that he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea.[41]

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.[42][43] Tillerson said that the State Department would continue discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.[44]

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.[45][46][18]

After 17 months in prison, Warmbier, in a comatose state, was medically evacuated 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.[47][48]

Medical condition

Warmbier's physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center stated that he was in "a state of unresponsive wakefulness," commonly known as persistent vegetative state.[45] 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.[49]

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 disc containing two magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans, dated April and July 2016, showing damage to the brain.[50]

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.[49][5][51][50][52]

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.[8] 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."[49]

Death and public reactions

Warmbier died in the hospital at 2:20 p.m. on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22.[53][54] His family issued a statement expressing their sadness, thanking the hospital staff for their actions.[55] 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."[53][56] Others criticized Warmbier.[57][58]

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.[59]

At the request of Warmbier's family, an autopsy was not performed, and only a postmortem external examination was conducted.[60][61] 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.[62] 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 U.S.[63]

After his death, Young Pioneer Tours, the tour company that organized the trip for Warmbier, announced that it would no longer accept American citizens on its tours.[64] One former State Department official noted that the State Department's website has for years strongly warned Americans not to travel to North Korea.[40]

A funeral for Warmbier was held on June 22 at Wyoming High School, with more than 2,500 mourners attending.[65] 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.[66]


U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at Cheonan memorial with North Korean defectors and Fred Warmbier, February 8, 2018

In July 2017, the U.S. government announced that it would ban American tourists from visiting North Korea as of September 1, 2017, with Warmbier's detention given as one of the reasons.[67][68] In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017, President Donald Trump mentioned Warmbier while lambasting North Korea as a rogue state.[69] One week later, Trump posted on Twitter that Warmbier was "tortured beyond belief" by North Korea.[70] His post followed a televised interview given by Warmbier's parents in which they spoke of their son's death and expressed their wish for North Korea to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism.[71] They also claimed that his body showed signs of torture, such as "rearranged" teeth and disfigured hands and feet. The following day, responding to the parents' interview, the Ohio coroner who had examined Warmbier denied that there were signs of torture, and said: "They're grieving parents. I can't really make comments on their perceptions."[1] The coroner said that Warmbier had died due to brain damage following an interruption of blood flow. She said that his skin condition was excellent and his muscle volume was reasonably good given the circumstances.[72]

On November 20, North Korea was relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism, with Warmbier's death cited as one of the reasons.[73]

Warmbier was one of 16 American citizens detained by North Korea since 1996.[74]

In April 2018, Otto's parents sued the North Korean government in the United States federal district court in Washington, D.C., accusing North Korea of torture and murder.[75] Although private citizens are not usually able to sue foreign nations and their governments, damages may be paid to the victims of nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism, like North Korea, from a special fund established by the United States Congress.[76]

In June 2018, Otto's parents praised President Trump for his comments about the family and stated that they hoped something positive would come from the 2018 North Korea–United States summit.[77]

See also


  1. ^ Some media reports indicated that Warmbier spoke by phone to a Young Pioneer tour guide following his arrest,[14][22] but this was denied by a Young Pioneer spokesman who told BBC News that "none of its employees had direct contact with Otto after he was escorted away."[5]


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