Otto Warmbier, a Jewish-American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for more than 17 months and was returned home to Ohio last week in a state of unresponsive wakefulness, died on Monday. According to JTA, He was a member of the University of Virginia Hillel and took the Birthright trip to Israel in 2014.
According to Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, Otto was traveling in China in late 2015 when he decided to visit North Korea. Apparently, the Chinese tour Otto took, Young Pioneer Tours, lured Westerners with slogans like, “This is the trip your parents don’t want you to take!” and promised the trip was safe for US citizens.
Otto and ten other US citizens joined a five-day, New Year’s tour of North Korea organized by Young Pioneer Tours. At some point, Otto was accused of stealing a propaganda poster at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, which read: “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”
According to Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s parents, the allegations about the poster were fabricated. In any event, Otto was arrested at the airport, and a video showing the “theft” was later released. He was tried and convicted, based on his confession which he read at his trial:
“I never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPR Korea, for your forgiveness. Please! I have made the worst mistake of my life! Please! Think of my family.”
On June 12, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that North Korea had released Otto Warmbier. Warmbier’s parents told The Washington Post their son had contracted botulism shortly after his trial and had fallen into a coma. After being 17 months away from home, Otto came back on June 13, 2017, and was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. A doctor with the Cincinnati Health Department was skeptical regarding the North Korean official explanation, that the coma resulted from a combination of botulism and a sleeping pill. Otto’s father believes his son lapsed into a coma under torture.
On June 15, 2017, physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center concluded that Otto had suffered extensive brain damage, which is consistent with a cardiopulmonary event rather than a head injury. They found no sign of physical abuse. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed he had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain. Medical records from North Korea show he had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. The North Koreans provided a disc containing two MRI brain studies, dated April and July 2016 showing damages to the brain.
Otto Warmbier died in hospital on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22, survived by his parents and two siblings. The family issued a statement expressing their sadness, and thanking hospital staff. President Trump issued a statement saying, “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.”