Otto Warmbier’s tragic journey to North Korea and back

American student who was imprisoned in North Korea then released in a coma, has died just days after arriving back in the US

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 2:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 11:04pm

Over and over, Otto Warmbier apologised and begged – at first calmly, then choking up and finally in tears – to be reunited with his family.

North Korean officials sitting at long tables watched impassively, with cameras rolling and journalists taking notes, as the adventuresome, accomplished 21-year-old college student from suburban Cincinnati talked animatedly about the “severe crime” that had put him there: trying to take a propaganda banner for someone back home, supposedly in return for a used car and to impress a semi-secret society he wanted to join, and all under the supposed direction of the US government.

“I have made the worst mistake of my life,” he exclaimed as his formally staged February 29, 2016, “confession” to anti-state activities ended in Pyongyang.

More than 15 months later he was dead. He had been flown home to be reunited with his parents and two younger siblings, only he was in a coma. Whether he was ever aware of his return is unclear.

Doctors said he suffered “severe neurological injury” with extensive loss of brain tissue and “profound weakness and contraction” of his muscles, arms and legs. His eyes opened and blinked but there were no signs of him understanding verbal commands or his surroundings.

Warmbier arrived at the UC Medical Centre following North Korea’s decision to release him for what it called humanitarian reasons and under strong pressure after the Trump administration.

His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, were told he had been in a coma since shortly after being sentenced March 16, 2016, to 15 years of prison with hard labour.

If life had gone to plan, today he would be in his first month as a new graduate at the University of Virginia.

He had planned to study abroad in his third year of college in China and heard about Chinese travel companies offering trips to North Korea.

“Otto’s a young, thrill-seeking, great kid who was going to be in that part of the world for a college experience,” Fred Warmbier explained.

Otto booked a five-day tour for late December 2015 and was returning to China on January 2, 2016, when he was detained. A state-run news agency released a short, grainy video with a shadowy, unrecognisable figure that was said to show Warmbier stealing a banner from a wall in his hotel.

A British member of the tour group who was Warmbier’s Pyongyang hotel roommate, Danny Gratton, told The Washington Post that he never heard or saw any hint that Warmbier planned to or did anything wrong. He called him mature and very polite.

Warmbier was abruptly pulled out of the airport security line, Gratton said. He didn’t resist or seem scared, he recalled, and gave Gratton a half-smile as he was led away.

“He was just a young lad who wanted a bit of adventure,” Gratton told The Post.

What happened to Otto Warmbier after his sentencing might never be known outside the reclusive country.

His parents discount the North Korean claim that he contracted botulism, caused by a rare toxin, and then fell into coma after taking a sleeping pill. His doctors in Cincinnati found no evidence of botulism, but also said there were no signs of fractures to indicate he was beaten into his present state. His condition was consistent with cardiopulmonary arrest from a loss of oxygen to the brain, they said.

In his hometown of Wyoming, people said he was a popular young man who played football and was salutatorian of his 2013 class at the esteemed Wyoming High School.

“He was generous, outgoing, sweet, smart as a whip; just an overall good guy,” said Danica White, his English teacher. He brought “brightness” and excitement to the classroom, she said.

Locals wrapped ribbons in the school colours of blue and white around the trees and utility poles lining the town’s main road.

“Nothing really bad ever happens in Wyoming,” said Ellie Boettcher, 14. “It’s kind of a like a bubble, so it’s really tragic.”

Fred Warmbier praised his son’s “performance” at the North Korea confession and paid homage by wearing the same light-coloured sport jacket his son did that day. He told reporters that his son was “a fighter” and that he believes he fought for months to get back to his family.

Later, Otto’s younger brother Austin shared with reporters a video, the last known one of Otto as a free person.

It’s in North Korea. He, other young adults and some children gather to toss snowballs at the camera. He is smiling and laughing.

“This is the Otto that I know and love,” Austin said in an accompanying email. “This is my brother.”