North Korea is one of modern day’s greatest mysteries. Nobody in the state is allowed to leave, and those who attempt to leave are often caught and sent to prison camps. Those who wish to enter the country for tourism purposes are given strict guidelines and are told where they can and cannot go. Activities which may be considered tame in Europe and America could be considered extreme over there, and the consequences of such activities can be devastating.
Otto Warmbier was one such tourist who was brave enough to venture to North Korea, despite hostility with the United States in the lead up to the 2016 presidential election. From Cincinnati in Ohio and a student of economics in the University of Virginia, he was in Hong Kong for a study abroad program. He decided to visit North Korea on a guided tour, and organised it through a China-based company called Young Pioneer Tours, which boasts of providing “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
The group stayed in the Yanggakdo International Hotel in the lead up to New Year’s Eve 2015. That night Otto is said to have tried to take a propaganda sign from within a staff-only area of the hotel. Danny Gratton, from Staffordshire in the UK, shared a room with Otto and said there was “no indication at all” that Otto had taken the sign and that he did no mention it. Otto was taken away by guards as the pair went through immigration control at Pyongyang International Airport on 2 January 2016. Gratton had to say of that moment: “I made an ironic comment. I actually said ‘Well we won’t be seeing you again’. He sort of laughed at me and that was the last we saw of him.”
On 22 January, North Korea confirmed that Otto had been arrested for crimes against the state. He gave a televised statement in late February and was given a sentence of 15 years’ hard labour. Observers said the sentence seemed unusually high for a foreigner and could be related to deepening tensions between North Korea and the US over the former’s nuclear programme.
The US government announced on 14 June 2017 that Otto had been released. Upon his return to America, he was in a coma and North Korea announced that they had released him on humanitarian grounds. How the coma came about and how he was treated while in North Korea have never been learned. Otto’s father Fred says that he slipped into a coma “the day after he was sentenced.” Respiratory arrest is believed to be the cause of the brain damage. There were no signs that Otto was beaten.
On 19 June, the Warmbier family announced that Otto had “completed his journey home” and that he had passed away in hospital surround by his family. The family insists that North Korea killed him; “The awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.” North Korea says that he contracted botulism and fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.
Nobody truly knows what happened to Otto over the time of his incarceration in North Korea, but it is universally agreed that North Korea is hiding the truth of the case. With President Trump and Kim Jong Un set to meet for talks in the coming months, perhaps the death of this young man will be clarified, providing closure for Otto’s family.