On a humid morning in June 2017, in a suburb outside Cincinnati in the United States, Fred and Cindy Warmbier waited in agony. They had not spoken to their son Otto for a year and a half, since he had been arrested during a budget tour of North Korea. One of their last glimpses of him had been in a televised news conference from Pyongyang, during which their boy – a sweet, intelligent 21-year-old scholarship student at the University of Virginia – confessed to undermining the regime at the behest of the unlikely triumvirate of an Ohio church, a university secret society and the American government by stealing a propaganda poster.

He sobbed to his captors, “I have made the single worst decision of my life. But I am only human […] I beg that you find it in your hearts to give me forgiveness and allow me to return home to my family.”

Despite his pleas, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour and vanished into the dictatorship’s prison system.

Fred and Cindy had so despaired during their long vigil that at one point they allegedly told friends that Otto had probably been killed. On her son’s 22nd birthday, Cindy lit Chinese-style lanterns and let the winter winds lift the flame-buoyed balloons toward North Korea, dreaming they might bear her message to her son. “I love you, Otto,” she said, then sang Happy Birthday.

But on that June morning, the Warmbiers were anticipating news of a secret US State Department mission to free their son. Upon learning that Otto was apparently unconscious, President Donald Trump had directed an American team to fly to North Korea, and now progress of the mission was being monitored at the highest level of the government.

Homecoming

No assurances had been made that the young man would actually be released, and so the officials were on tenterhooks as well. According to an official, at 8.35am, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telephoned the president to announce that Otto was airborne. The president reportedly signed off by saying, “Take care of Otto.” Then Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who helped oversee efforts to repatriate the American, called to tell the Warmbiers that the air ambulance had just entered Japanese airspace. Otto would be home that night.

Now Portman and his staff scrambled to prepare the homecoming, re-routing the plane from Cincinnati’s international airport to a smaller, municipal one, which would be more private. As the sun went down, a crowd waved handmade signs welcoming Otto home, and TV crews pushed their cameras against the bars of the perimeter fence. The sleek luxury plane taxied to some hangars, where the Warmbiers waited nearby.

Halfway up the aeroplane’s stairs, over the whine of the still-cycling engines, Fred Warmbier later said he heard a guttural “inhuman” howling and wondered what it was. But when he stepped into the cabin cluttered with medical equipment, he found its source: Otto, strapped to a stretcher, jerking violently against his restraints and wailing.

It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth
Otto Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier

Cindy was prepared for her son to be changed, but she had not expected this. Otto’s arms and legs were “totally deformed”, according to his parents. His wavy brown locks had been buzzed off. A feeding tube had been inserted into a nostril. “It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth,” Fred would say. According to Cindy, Otto’s sister fled the plane, screaming, and Cindy ran after her.

Fred approached his son and hugged him. Otto’s eyes remained wide open and blank. Fred told Otto that he had missed him and was overjoyed to have him home. But Otto’s alien groaning only continued, impossible to comfort.

By the time paramedics carried Otto out of the plane by his legs and armpits, and loaded him into an ambulance, Cindy had recovered somewhat. She forced herself to join him in the emergency vehicle, though seeing him in such torment had almost caused her to pass out.

At the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the family camped at Otto’s bedside while speculation blazed around the world about what had rendered him in a vegetative state. But Otto would never recover to tell his side of the story. And despite exhaustive examinations by doctors, no definitive medical evidence explaining his injury would ever emerge.

Instead, North Korea and the US competed to provide a story to fill the vacuum. North Korea blamed Otto’s condition on a combination of botulism and an unexpected reaction to a sleeping pill, an explanation many American doctors insisted was unlikely. A senior American official asserted that, according to intelligence reports, Otto had been repeatedly beaten. Fred and Cindy declared on television that their son had been physically tortured, spotlighting the evil of the dictatorship. President Trump pushed this narrative.

Meanwhile, the American military made preparations for a possible conflict. Otto became a symbol used to build “a case for war on emotional grounds”, The New York Times editorial board wrote in February.

South Korea and China relations warming but chilly restrictions remain

As the Trump administration and North Korea spun Otto’s story for their own ends, I spent six months trying to figure out what had actually happened to him. What made an American college student go to Pyongyang? What kind of nightmare did he endure while in captivity? How did his brain damage occur? And how did his eventual death push America closer to war with North Korea and then, in a surprising reversal, help lead to Trump’s peace summit with Kim Jong-un?

The story I uncovered was stranger and sadder than anyone had known. In fact, the truth of Otto’s injury was not as black-and-white as people had been encouraged to believe. But before he became a rallying cry in the administration’s campaign against North Korea, Otto was just a kid.

All-American

In a white, two-storey home flying the Stars and Stripes, Otto grew up the eldest child of a Republican family. He was one of those special young people who are praised as “all-American”. At highly ranked Wyoming High School, in Ohio, he boasted the second-best grades in his year group. He was a maths whizz and a gifted soccer player and swimmer. He was prom king and his peers anointed him with the plastic crown at homecoming.

But despite running in the “popular circle given his athletic prowess, classic good looks and unending charisma”, a classmate later wrote in a local newspaper, he “still felt like everyone’s friend”. Though his family was well-to-do, he had a passion for “memorabilia investing”, as he called thrift-store shopping, and sometimes dressed in second-hand Hawaiian shirts. When the time came for him to give a speech at his high school graduation, instead of orating grandiosely, he admitted to struggling for words. He took as his theme a quote from TV sitcom The Office: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days,” he told his peers, “before you’ve actually left them.”

Of course, Otto’s best days seemed ahead: he attended the University of Virginia with a scholarship in 2014, intent on becoming a banker. A meticulous planner, he filled a calendar hung on his dormitory wall with handwritten commitments: from assignments and dates to bringing friends with disabilities to basketball games. He joined a fraternity known for its “kind of nerdy dudes”, and one of his college friends said that academics and visits with family took precedence over everything else. When he won a finance internship in the autumn of his junior year, there was no disputing that he was a man fully in charge of his destiny.

Knowing that he would soon be labouring over spreadsheets, Otto decided he wanted an adventure during his 2015 winter break. He had long been curious about other cultures and had previously travelled to such exotic destinations as Cuba. Since he would already be travelling to Hong Kong to study abroad, he decided he wanted to witness the world’s most repressive nation: North Korea. Even though the state imprisons and sometimes executes citizens who try to flee its borders, it also permits thousands of foreigners to visit each year on tightly controlled tours – one of the few ways its sanction-crippled economy makes cash.

For his trip, Otto chose Young Pioneer Tours, an operator specialising in budget excursions to what it called “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from”. The trips had a reputation of being like spring break in a geopolitical hotspot. After putting down a deposit for a US$1,200, five-day, four-night “New Year’s Party Tour”, Otto learned from the confirmation email that his visa would be arranged by the company and presented to him when he met the tour group at Beijing airport. The US State Department had an advisory in place against travel to North Korea, where he would be beyond the American government’s reach. Otto’s parents were far from thrilled by the prospect of the trip, but as his mother later explained, “Why would you say no to a kid like this?”

So, soon after Christmas, Otto met the other Young Pioneers in China and boarded an old Soviet jet to Pyongyang. In North Korea’s capital, border police confiscated cameras and flicked through files on smartphones to make sure no outsider was smuggling in subversive materials. Then Otto stepped through passport control.

The happiest nation

Early during their time in Pyongyang, Otto and the other Young Pioneers were led aboard the USS Pueblo, an American Navy spy ship that had been seized by the North Koreans in 1968 and today serves as a visitor attraction. While they toured the ship, the tourists were regaled by a North Korean who told them how it had been captured from the “imperial enemy”. The 82 American sailors on board the Pueblo were beaten and starved for 11 months before being released.

For Otto, the story made clear what he had perhaps overlooked: that he was in enemy territory. Even though the Korean war had reached a stalemate in 1953, the lack of a peace agreement meant that the North was technically still at war with the South and its ally, the US. Stepping from the boat, Otto “was a little bit shocked”, said Danny Gratton, an impish British 40-something greeting-card salesman who was his roommate on the tour.

But Gratton and the other tourists, a mix of Canadians, Australians, Europeans, and at least one other American, helped Otto laugh off that dark knowledge, nicknaming him “Imperial Enemy”, as in, “Hey, Imperial Enemy, want another beer?” Soon enough, Otto was having fun again, for even though propaganda billboards showed North Korean missiles blasting the White House, the tour felt more like a bizarre charade than a visit to a hostile nation.

The foreigners visited the 20-metre-tall bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, the country’s first two generations of dictators, and they could never be sure if the citizens they saw spontaneously hailing the leadership were sincere or had been put up to it. Everyone knew that outside the stage-managed capital lay starving villages and concentration camps. But Otto succeeded in bridging the cultural divide, laughing and throwing snowballs with North Korean children.

On New Year’s Eve, the group went drinking at a fancy bar, though according to Gratton, no one got belligerently drunk, as some reports would later suggest. After the bar, Gratton says, they celebrated the final hours of New Year’s Eve with thousands of North Koreans in Pyongyang’s main square. The group then returned to the Yanggakdo International Hotel, known as the “Alcatraz of Fun” because of its location on an island in the Taedong River that cuts through Pyongyang. To keep foreigners entertained, the 47-floor tower is furnished with five restaurants (one of which revolves), a bar, a sauna, a massage parlour and a bowling alley.

Some of the group headed to the hotel bar. Gratton went bowling, losing track of Otto. It was only later that he would wonder about “the two-hour window that none of us can account for [Otto]”.

Xi Jinping says war must never be allowed on Korean peninsula as South’s president tries to mend relations on visit to China

North Korea would later release grainy CCTV camera footage of an unidentifiable figure removing a framed propaganda poster from a wall in a restricted area of the hotel, claiming it was Otto. During his televised confession, Otto would read from a handwritten script that he had put on his “quietest boots, the best for sneaking” and attempted the theft at the prompting of a local Methodist church, a university secret society and the American administration “to harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people” and bring home a “trophy”.

Many of the confession’s details did not square – for one, Otto was Jewish, not affiliated with a Methodist church – making experts suspect the words were not Otto’s. Whatever happened during those lost hours, by the time Gratton returned to his and Otto’s room, at about 4.30am on January 1, 2016, Otto was sleeping.

The following morning at the airport, the two tired friends were the last of the tour group to present their passports, side by side at a single desk. After an uncomfortably long period of time, Gratton noticed that the officers were intently scrutinising the documents. Then two soldiers marched up and one tapped Otto on the shoulder. Gratton thought the authorities just wanted to give the Imperial Enemy a hard time, and jested, “Well, that’s the last we’ll ever see of you.”

Otto laughed and then let himself be led away from Gratton through a wooden door beside the check-in area.

The New York Channel

When Robert King went to work at the State Department on January 2, 2016, during the Barack Obama administration, he was expecting a day of churning through emails accumulated over the holidays. Instead, a red-alert situation confronted him. King’s first thought was, “Oh no, not another American.” During his seven years as the special envoy for North Korean human-rights issues, King had helped oversee the safe release of more than a dozen imprisoned Americans, so he knew what to expect.

First, Otto would be forced to confess to undermining the regime, and tapes of that confession would be used as domestic propaganda to convince North Koreans that America sought to destroy them. Next, Otto was likely to be imprisoned and his freedom used as a bargaining chip to extract a visit from a high-level American dignitary to North Korea, or concessions in nuclear or sanctions negotiations.

In meetings with the Warmbiers, King warned the family to expect “a marathon, not a sprint”. He also recommended they stay quiet to avoid antagonising the unpredictable regime.

He could offer them few reassurances, he explains, saying, “We weren’t 100 per cent sure where [Otto] was or what had happened to him,” because America has scant intelligence assets in North Korea. The Warmbiers grew frustrated that the world’s most powerful nation could not take direct and immediate action to help their son.

But King had no leverage over Pyongyang. He could not even directly communicate with North Korean officials because the two countries have no formal diplomatic relationship. In fact, the Swedish ambassador stands in as Washington’s liaison for American citizens in Pyongyang. All King could do was wait out the weeks while the Swedes’ emails and calls were stonewalled.

But even if an official State Department response was stymied, that did not mean that a back-channel route could not be employed. Soon after Otto was arrested, Ohio Governor John Kasich connected the Warmbiers with Bill Richardson, the affable former governor of New Mexico and ambassador to the United Nations, who was leading a foundation that specialises in under-the-radar “fringe diplomacy” to secure the release of hostages from hostile regimes or criminal organisations. Richardson had previously helped free several Americans from North Korea and consequently had a strong relationship with what is commonly called “the New York Channel” – the North Korean representatives at the UN headquarters in Manhattan, who often serve as unofficial go-betweens for Washington and Pyongyang.

Every few weeks from February to August 2016, Richardson or Mickey Bergman, his senior adviser, travelled to New York to meet the Koreans. In restaurants, hotel lobbies and coffee shops near the UN building, they would hold polite negotiations with the regime’s representatives. But soon after Otto’s conviction in Pyongyang, Richardson sensed that the previously communicative foreign ministry was having its information cut off by Kim Jong-un’s obstinate inner circle – a transition, his team would later realise, that probably dated from Otto’s injury. “They made it clear they could only convey our offers,” Richardson recalls. “They were not decision makers at all.”

To get real answers, someone would have to go to Pyongyang. So with the Obama White House’s blessing, Richardson and Bergman negotiated a visit by promising to discuss private humanitarian aid for North Korean flood victims, along with Otto’s release. Bergman, a former Israeli paratrooper with a therapist’s sensitive demeanour, was chosen as the emissary, as Richardson would draw too much attention.

In September, Bergman brought about what he describes as the first face-to-face meeting between American and North Korean representatives in Pyongyang in nearly two years. Diplomatic missions to North Korea are different from those to other countries, in which meetings take place across oak tables. In Pyongyang, Bergman was squired around for four days to many of the same sites that Otto had visited – from the USS Pueblo to the same restaurants. But as he chatted with his guides, he knew his informal offers were being conveyed up the chain. By the time Bergman sat down with a vice-minister on his final day, he was expecting a positive outcome in light of the excitement of his minders. But Bergman was told he would not even get to see Otto. Afterwards, his handlers reminded him, “It takes 100 hacks to take down a tree.”

Bergman replied that he hoped he would not have to travel to Pyongyang 99 more times.

Bergman left under the impression that the North Koreans were considering ways Otto might be released, but first they wanted to see what would happen in the 2016 presidential campaign, which was reaching its climax.

When Trump won, Bergman and Richardson recognised a golden opportunity to free Otto in a way that would reflect the release of American hostages in Iran at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s inaugural presidential term. The two fringe diplomats put together a photo-op-worthy proposal for the Trump plane to pick Otto up in advance of the inauguration, before bureaucracy hemmed in the new president. They did not receive a refusal from North Korea and this, they knew from past diplomacy with the Koreans, was often a signal of positive interest.

“The challenge that we had was that we could not get Donald Trump,” Bergman says. “We tried to go through Giuliani, Pence, Ivanka. Nothing during the transition. I’m assuming they were in chaos over there. I don’t think it ever crossed his desk, because I think he would have actually liked it.”

After the election, as King transitioned into retirement, Otto’s case was taken up by the newly appointed US special representative for North Korea policy, Joseph Yun. When Yun came in, Pyongyang was still refusing to speak to the Obama administration, but soon after the day of Trump’s inauguration, the mild-mannered but steely former ambassador established contact with the New York Channel on the issue of Otto’s release. By February 2017, a delegation of North Koreans was set to visit the US, but then Kim Jong-un orchestrated the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, with a chemical weapon in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, which drew condemnation from America, scuttling the talks.

By April, however, relations had thawed to the extent that Yun was able to persuade Tillerson to let him discuss freeing Otto face-to-face with senior North Korean officials, so long as no broader diplomacy was engaged in. Yun travelled to Norway to meet several high-level North Korean officials on the sidelines of secret nuclear negotiations, conducted by retired diplomats to get around the lack of a framework for official contact.

Yun and the North Koreans agreed that the Swedish ambassador could visit Otto and the three other Americans who were detained in North Korea at the time. In the end, the proxy was reportedly allowed to see only one detainee, and not Otto.

Yun continued to demand access to Otto, and one day in early June he received a call requesting that he urgently meet with the New York Channel. In Manhattan, the North Koreans informed Yun that Otto was unconscious.

“I was completely shocked,” Yun says. He argued that given the young man’s health, Pyongyang should free him promptly on humanitarian grounds. “I came back immediately, and I told Secretary Tillerson. And we determined at the time that we needed to get him and the other prisoners out as soon as possible, and I should contact Pyongyang and say I wanted to come right away.”

When Trump learned of Otto’s condition, he doubled down on the order for Yun to rush to Pyongyang and bring Otto home. The North Koreans were unilaterally informed that an American plane would soon land in Pyongyang and that US diplomats and doctors would disembark. According to a State Department official involved in the case, but not authorised to speak on the record, the president was very invested in bringing Otto home: “Listening to him deliberate on this, he sounded to me a lot more like a dad.” But “we were very scared”, for though the North Koreans eventually said the plane would be able to land, no one knew what kind of welcome the Americans would receive on the ground.

Yun explains, “The North Koreans said we could send a delegation to see Otto, but that we would have to discuss some of the conditions of getting him out once we got there.” And so Yun raced to assemble a diplomatic and medical team to save Otto.

The rescue

Michael Flueckiger was used to calmly fixing horrifying situations, having previously saved countless patients following gunshot wounds and car crashes during 31 years as a trauma-centre doctor. He was also no stranger to dangerous overseas situations; in his current position as medical director for elite air-ambulance service Phoenix Air, he had evacuated Americans stricken with Ebola from Africa.

When his boss called to ask if he would help rescue Otto from North Korea, he briefly hesitated from fear, but decided he could not ask any of his employees to go in his place. Having committed, the challenge-seeking, mountain-biking 67-year-old excitedly awaited the mission.

The final go-ahead from the State Department arrived during an otherwise uneventful Friday lunch. Phoenix Air immediately diverted its best aircraft – a luxury Gulfstream G-III jet upgraded into a flying emergency room – from Senegal to its headquarters, outside Atlanta, where Flueckiger and his team got it loaded and airborne again in less than two hours the following day.

They then picked up Yun and two other members of the State Department in Washington, DC and flew onwards to Japan. There they disembarked everyone but Yun, one other diplomat and Flueckiger – for only these three had been authorised to enter North Korea. The next day, as the Gulfstream headed toward North Korean airspace, all the Japanese air-traffic controllers could do was point the plane at Pyongyang and instruct the pilot to proceed in a straight line for 20 miles, there being no official flight path between the countries. Then the radio chatter faded out, and for 10 minutes only static filled the airwaves. Finally, a voice came on speaking perfect English and guided the plane as it landed in Pyongyang. A busload of soldiers escorted the Americans off the tarmac, and the aircraft returned to Japan.

The Americans were chauffeured through the farmland outside Pyongyang to an opulent guesthouse complete with marble staircases, chandeliers and a full staff, despite the fact that they appeared to be the only guests. That day, Yun engaged in several rounds of intense negotiations with North Korean officials as he worked to win Otto’s freedom. However, Yun found himself repeatedly butting his head against the same argument: Otto had committed this crime, why should he escape due process?

In North Korea, disrespecting one of the ubiquitous propaganda posters is a serious breach of the law. Seoul-based research organisation Database Center for North Korean Human Rights confirms a case of a factory janitor being prosecuted for knocking such a picture off the wall and breaking it. As director of the Korea Risk Group, Andrei Lankov, told me in Seoul, if a North Korean did what Otto allegedly did, “they would be dead or definitely tortured”.

Finally, Yun persuaded the North Koreans to let him see Otto. Flueckiger and Yun were shuttled to Pyongyang Friendship Hospital, a private facility that often treats foreign diplomats living in the city. In an isolated second-floor intensive-care unit room, Flueckiger was presented with a pale, inert man with a feeding tube threaded into his nose. Flueckiger wondered, could this really be Otto? The body looked so different from the pictures he had seen of the homecoming king.

Flueckiger clapped his hands beside Otto’s ear and there was no meaningful response. Sadness flooded him. He had two children and struggled to imagine one of them in such a state. Yun, too, could not help but think of his own son, who was about the same age as Otto, and about how the Warmbiers would feel when they saw their boy.

I would have been willing to fudge that report if I thought it would get Otto released. But as it turned out, he got good care and I did not have to lie
Michael Flueckiger, medical director, Phoenix Air

Two North Korean doctors explained that Otto had arrived at the hospital in this state more than a year earlier. They showed as evidence handwritten charts and several brain scans that revealed Otto had suffered extensive brain damage. Flueckiger spent about an hour examining Otto, but the truth had been evident at first sight: the Otto of old was gone. Though his condition had obviously improved since arriving in hospital (there was a tracheotomy scar where machines had once breathed for him), he was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness, meaning that he still possessed basic reflexes but no longer showed signs of awareness.

The North Koreans asked Flueckiger to sign a report testifying that Otto had been well cared for in hospital. “I would have been willing to fudge that report if I thought it would get Otto released,” Flueckiger said. “But as it turned out,” despite the most basic facilities (the room’s sink did not even work), “he got good care and I did not have to lie.”

Otto was well nourished and had no bedsores, something even Western hospitals struggle to achieve with comatose patients. But the North Koreans were still not ready to let Otto go.

Negotiations continued into the night. The next morning, Flueckiger and Yun were driven to a hotel in downtown Pyongyang, where the three other American prisoners were marched into a conference room one by one. The three Korean-Americans, all detained on charges of espionage or “hostile acts against the state”, had had almost no contact with the outside world since their arrests. All cried as they dictated messages for their families to Yun. After 15 minutes, each prisoner was escorted away.

“I was, frankly, disappointed we did not get the others out,” Yun says. “It was very hard to leave them behind.”

On returning to the guesthouse, Yun once again found himself arguing with North Korean officials for Otto’s freedom. Then Yun played his final card. “I called my guys to bring the plane from Japan. I told the North Koreans we would leave with or without Otto,” he says. “I felt there was no point in dragging on. I was 90 per cent sure they would release him, and that this call would bring an action forcing them to do so.”

Soon before the plane was to land, a North Korean official announced to Yun that it had been decided to release Otto. The Americans returned to the hospital, and a North Korean judge in a black suit commuted Otto’s sentence. Then the US motorcade and the ambulance raced directly to the airport, through open security gates and onto the tarmac where the Gulfstream waited.

When the plane cleared North Korean airspace, the celebrations were muted. The team knew they would soon face the heartbreak of turning Otto over to his parents. In the meantime, Flueckiger cradled Otto, changed his diaper, and whispered to him that he was free, like a father soothing his baby.

The crusade for Otto

Two days after the return, Fred Warmbier took the stage at Otto’s high school. He was draped in the linen blazer that his son had worn during his forced confession. With tears in his eyes, in front of assembled reporters, he said, “Otto, I love you, and I’m so crazy about you, and I’m so glad you’re home.” He blamed the Obama administration for failing to win Otto’s release sooner, and thanked Trump. When asked about his son’s health, he said grimly, “We’re trying to make him comfortable.” Sometimes he slipped into the past tense when talking about him.

From the start, Fred had striven relentlessly for Otto’s freedom with the same streetwise entrepreneurism he had used to build a major metal-finishing business after going to work straight out of high school. He travelled to Washington more than a dozen times in 2016, to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and other high-level politicians. But after a fruitless year of bowing to the Obama administration’s admonitions to work behind the scenes, he decided that “the era of strategic patience for the Warmbier family [was] over”.

Early in Trump’s presidency, Fred appeared on Fox News, reportedly because he knew that the president obsessively watched the network, to complain that the State Department was not doing enough for his son. “President Trump, I ask you: bring my son home,” he said. “You can make a difference here.”

Soon, the new administration had raised Otto’s case into a signature issue.

When Otto was returned in a vegetative state, Fred Warmbier refocused his zeal on getting justice for him. To Fred, the evidence of torture seemed clear. The once vital young man was severely brain damaged. His formerly straight teeth were misaligned and a large scar marred his foot. Doctors detected no signs of botulism, North Korea’s explanation. And The New York Times wrote that the government had “obtained intelligence reports in recent weeks indicating that Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody”, citing an anonymous senior American official.

Within 48 hours of his return, Otto had a fever that had risen to 40 degrees Celsius. After doctors confirmed to Fred and Cindy that their son would never be cognisant again, they directed that his feeding tube be removed. They stayed at his bedside until, six days after returning home, Otto died.

Hundreds of people lined the streets to witness Otto’s hearse, and many made the “W” hand gesture representing his high school. Wearing an American-flag tie, Fred watched his son “complete his journey home” with a haggard stare.

After a mourning period, Fred and Cindy appeared on Fox News’ Fox & Friends in September 2017, once more reportedly seeking to catch the president’s eye, and called the North Koreans “terrorists” who had “intentionally injured” Otto. Fred graphically described damage to Otto’s teeth and foot as the result of torture, and demanded that the administration punish the dictatorship.

Soon afterward, the president showed his approval by tweeting “great interview” and noting that Otto was “tortured beyond belief by North Korea”.

To lobby for the US to take legal action against North Korea, Fred hired the lawyer who represents Vice President Mike Pence in the special counsel’s Russia investigation. In early November, Congress backed banking restrictions against North Korea that were named for Otto. And later that month, Trump designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would allow harsher future sanctions, stating, “As we take this action today, our thoughts turn to Otto Warmbier.”

At about the same time as Otto’s death, US hostilities with North Korea were growing heated. This was the period when Trump and Kim Jong-un were regularly trading insults and making nuclear threats, and behind the scenes in Washington, dovish diplomats such as Yun were being replaced by hawks, including John Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq war.

The likelihood of conflict grew so real that an American diplomat warned a Seoul-dwelling friend in confidence to move his assets out of South Korea.

On TV and social media, and in official speeches, Republican officials cited Otto’s death as a reason Kim Jong-un needed to be confronted. When making a case for a forceful response against North Korea to the South Korean National Assembly, in November 2017, Trump said their common enemy had “tortured Otto Warmbier, ultimately leading to that fine young man’s death”. In his January 2018 State of the Union address, Trump pledged to keep “maximum pressure” on North Korea and to “honour Otto’s memory with total American resolve”, while the Warmbiers wept in the gallery.

Meanwhile, Fred and Cindy travelled the country reinforcing the narrative that Otto had been tortured. As Cindy told the UN in New York City, “I can’t let Otto die in vain.”

In April 2018, the Warmbiers, seeking damages, filed a lawsuit alleging that North Korea “brutally tortured and murdered” their son.


Despite how Trump and his administration boosted the narrative that Otto was physically tortured, however, the evidence was not clear-cut. The day after the Warmbiers went on national television to declare that Otto had been “systematically tortured and intentionally injured”, Lakshmi Kode Sammarco, the coroner who had examined Otto, unexpectedly called a press conference. She explained that she had not previously done so out of respect for the Warmbiers. But her findings, and those of the doctors who had attended Otto, contradicted the Warmbiers’ assertions.

Fred had described Otto’s teeth as having been “rearranged” with pliers, but Sammarco reiterated that the postmortem exam found that “the teeth [were] natural and in good repair”. She discovered no significant scars, dismissing the one on his foot as not definitively indicative of anything.

Other signs of physical trauma were also lacking. Both sides of Otto’s brain had suffered simultaneously, meaning it had been starved of oxygen. (Blows to the head would have likely resulted in asymmetrical, rather than universal, damage.) Though the Warmbiers declined a surgical autopsy, non-invasive scans found no hairline bone fractures or other evidence of prior trauma.

“His body was in excellent condition,” Sammarco stated. “I’m sure he had to have round-the-clock care to be able to maintain the skin in the condition it was in.” When asked about the Warmbiers’ claims, Sammarco answered, “They’re grieving parents. I can’t really make comments on what they said or their perceptions. But here in this office, we depend on science for our conclusions.”

Three other individuals who had close contact with Otto on his return also did not notice any physical signs consistent with torture.

The origin of Otto’s injury remained a mystery. “We’re never going to know,” Sammarco said, “unless the people who were there at the time it happened would come forward and say, ‘This is what happened.’”

The probable

Discovering the truth of events that happen in North Korea is a task that even American intelligence agencies struggle with. But Otto Warmbier’s experience after his arrest is not a black hole, as it has often been portrayed. Through intelligence sources, government officials and senior-level North Korean defectors, and drawing on the experiences of the 15 other Americans who since 1996 have been imprisoned in North Korea – some in the same places as Otto – it is possible to describe Otto’s probable day-to-day life there.

Within the electrified fences of many of North Korea’s notorious prison camps dwell up to 120,000 inmates, condemned for infractions as minor as watching banned South Korean soap operas. The human-rights abuses within have been extensively documented. The lucky survive on starvation rations while enduring routine beatings and dangerous enforced labour, such as coal mining. The unlucky are tortured to death.

In Seoul, one North Korean, who endured three years at a low-level camp for trying to flee the country, weeps as she tells me, “North Korean prisons are actually hell. We had less rights than a dog. They often beat us, and we were so hungry we would catch mice in our cells to eat.” She says she saw six to eight fellow prisoners die every day.

But American detainees escape that fate, and the State Department believes Otto was probably kept at a guesthouse. At least five previous American detainees have been imprisoned in a two-storey building with a green-tiled roof in a gated alleyway behind a restaurant in downtown Pyongyang. The facility is run by North Korea’s State Security Department, the secret police. (Other Americans have been kept at a different guesthouse, and at least three have stayed at a hotel.)

The most used guesthouse is luxurious by local standards – detainees can hear guards using its karaoke machine into the small hours – but Otto would have likely found its two-room suites roughly equivalent to those in a basic hotel. And no matter how nice his suite, it was also a cell, for he would have been allowed out only for an occasional escorted walk.

For the next two months, until his forced confession, Otto would likely have been relentlessly interrogated (American missionary Kenneth Bae, who was detained in North Korea in 2012 and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in North Korea, but released in 2014, said he was questioned for up to 15 hours a day). The goal would not have been to extract the truth but to construct the fabricated story that Otto read off handwritten notes at his news conference.

In the past, North Korea has spun false confessions from small truths, and in this case they may have construed a conspiracy from a souvenir propaganda poster that Otto had bought, according to Gratton, Otto’s tour roommate. No previous American detainee has accused North Korea of using physical force to extract a confession, but if Otto protested his innocence, he probably received a warning similar to the one given to Ohioan Jeffrey Fowle, who was detained two years earlier: “If you don’t start cooperating, things are going to become less pleasant,” he was told.

As American journalist Laura Ling wrote of her five months in detention in North Korea, in 2009, “I told [the prosecutor] what he wanted to hear – and kept telling him until he was satisfied.”

Since the sailors of the USS Pueblo were beaten in 1968, in fact, there have been no clear-cut cases of North Korea physically torturing American prisoners. When Ling and fellow journalist Euna Lee illegally entered North Korea from China, Ling was struck when soldiers detained them. But once their nationalities were established, they were sent to the green-roofed guesthouse.

American media, including The New York Times, have widely repeated the claims that missionary Robert Park was physically tortured during his six weeks of detention in North Korea in 2009-10, but Park himself has reportedly said that the story that he was stripped naked by female guards and clubbed in the genitals was fabricated by a journalist.

According to multiple accounts, the North Koreans have carefully tended to the health of Americans they have captured, caring for them, if needed, in the Friendship Hospital where Otto was kept. In 2013, for example, 85-year-old detainee Merrill Newman was reportedly visited by a doctor and nurse four times a day. As a high-level North Korean defector who now works for a South Korean intelligence agency says, “North Korea treats its foreign prisoners especially well. They know someday they will have to send them back.”

But that does not mean that North Korea does not psychologically torture detained Americans – in fact, it has always tried to bludgeon them into mental submission. Bae, Ling and other prisoners were repeatedly told that their government had “forgotten” them and were given so little hope that they only learned of their impending freedom an hour before being released.

When I meet Bae in the Seoul office of his NGO, which is dedicated to helping North Korean defectors, he tells me, “Being imprisoned was lonely, isolating and frustrating. I was on trial for all of America, so I had to accept that I had no control and there was no way I could get out of the impending punishment.”

While some previous detainees were allowed letters from home, it seems that North Korea denied Otto any contact with the outside world. His only break from the interrogations was likely watching North Korean propaganda films. The psychic trauma of all this has sent previous detainees into crushing depressions, and even driven some to attempt suicide.

The staff at Friendship Hospital said they received Otto the morning after the trial, and that when he came in he was unresponsive. They had to resuscitate him, then give him oxygen and put him on a ventilator, or he would die
Flueckiger

In the footage of his news-conference confession, Otto looked physically healthy, but as he sobbed for his freedom, he was obviously in extreme mental distress. Two weeks later, in mid-March, as Otto was filmed after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, his body still looked whole, but his expression was vacant and he had to be supported by two guards as he was dragged out of the courthouse – as if the will to live had drained out of him.

Until now, the next assumption about Otto’s fate was that he had suffered severe brain damage by “April”, because the first brain scan sent back with his body was so time-stamped. Speculation suggested that the tragedy might have occurred at a special labour camp for foreigners, where at least three Americans have served their sentences. There, they were forced to plant soybeans or make bricks while living in spartan conditions, though, as Bae wrote, “Compared to the average North Korean serving time in a labour camp, I was in a four-star resort.”

Certainly, it would have been more likely for any type of tragedy – overexertion, a work accident or even directed beatings – to occur in that barbed-wire-enclosed valley a few miles outside Pyongyang. But Otto almost certainly never made it to the labour camp.

“The staff at Friendship Hospital said they received Otto the morning after the trial, and that when he came in he was unresponsive,” Flueckiger tells me. “They had to resuscitate him, then give him oxygen and put him on a ventilator, or he would die.”

As Yun, the negotiator who helped free Otto, says, “The doctors were clear that he had been brought to the hospital within a day of his trial, and that he had been in that same room until I saw him.”

The improbable

The previously unreported detail of when Otto was admitted to the Friendship Hospital changes the narrative of what could have happened to him. If Otto had been “repeatedly beaten”, as the intelligence reports mentioned in The New York Times reportedly suggested, it would logically have been during the two to six weeks between his sentencing, when videos of him showed no signs of physical damage, and “April”, as the North Korean brain scan was dated. But Otto was apparently unconscious by the next morning.

The coroner found no evidence of bludgeoning on Otto’s body. And when one takes into account that the entire case that Otto was beaten derives from that single anonymous official who spoke to The New York Times, the theory begins to develop holes.

It is for this paucity of evidence that, though the public discourse about Otto’s death has long been dominated by talk of beatings, there have been doubts among North Korea experts that the intelligence reports were correct. “I don’t believe Otto was physically tortured,” Lankov says in his office in Seoul. “The campaign to make Otto a symbol of North Korea’s cruelty was psychological preparation to justify military operations.”

Many experts point out that though North Korea is often portrayed as irrational, the Kim family has to be “both brutal and smart”, as Lankov puts it, to maintain its relative power on the world stage, especially for such a small, impoverished country. What incentive would they have to lose a valuable bargaining chip, especially when they have never been so thoughtless before? To these experts, it makes much more sense that Otto was treated like all other detained Americans, and that an unexpected catastrophe occurred. But despite experts’ doubts, none of them can disprove the intelligence reports indicating that Otto was beaten.

However, a senior-level American official who reviewed the reports tells me, “In general, the intel reports were wrong, as the medical examinations have shown. They were apparently not even correct about where Otto was or when he was beaten, for God’s sake. Likely, the reports were just hearsay. Someone heard third or fourth-hand that Otto was sick, and that person decided he was beaten. The North Koreans have never tortured a white guy physically. Never.”

The official says he does not know of the Trump administration having other sources of information about Otto being beaten.

Another senior government official tells me, “I can tell you that I’ve been in a lot of classified meetings about Otto, before and after his return. Beforehand, I heard some reporting that he was beaten, but it wasn’t from [US intelligence services], who never corroborated that, before or after the fact. But it’s possible that there was intel I did not see.”

A congressional staffer familiar with the intelligence reports says, “Before we had Otto back in the United States, we just did not know what was going on there. In the end, there was no definitive evidence whether he was beaten.” The staffer claims that the government has not received further intelligence reports indicating Otto was beaten.

Three days after the Times published its claims, The Washington Post also cited an anonymous senior American official, this time rejecting reports that Otto had been beaten in custody. South Korean intelligence, generally considered the spy agency with the best sources in North Korea, found no confirmation that Otto was beaten.

But if Otto was almost certainly not “repeatedly beaten”, then what put him in a state of non-responsive wakefulness? And why would the Trump administration allow these unverified rumours to flourish?

A theory

Without knowing about the revised timeline of Otto’s injury, experts I speak to overwhelmingly identify some kind of accident – for example, an allergic reaction – as the most likely cause for Otto’s unconsciousness. The likelihood that his brain damage happened immediately after the sentencing, however, raises the possibility that he may have attempted suicide.

Imagine what Otto must have been feeling after hearing that he would spend the next 15 years labouring in what he probably imagined to be a gulag. After two months of being constantly reminded that the American government could not help him, he probably felt that his family, his beautiful girlfriend (who called him her “soul mate”) and his Wall Street future were all lost. What else could he look forward to but physical and mental suffering?

At least two Americans imprisoned in North Korea have attempted suicide. After failing to cut his wrists, Aijalon Gomes – detained for entering the country illegally, in 2010 – chewed open a thermometer and drank its mercury, later explaining that he had given up on America’s ability to free him. Despite having his release won by former US president Jimmy Carter after seven months, Gomes suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and committed suicide by burning last year.

An American official says that Evan Hunziker tried to kill himself while being held for three months in 1996, and less than a month after returning home, he committed suicide through a gunshot to the head. Park also reportedly tried to take his own life on returning.

Even if North Korea did not beat Otto, that does not mean that he was not tortured, as the mental suffering the regime inflicted on him constitutes torture under the UN definition. As Tomás Ojea Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights for North Korea, says, “Otto’s rights were violated on every level.”

The unknown

The first that Governor Richardson, the back-channel negotiator, heard of Otto’s injury was upon the young man’s release, and he was furious at having been deceived by Pyongyang. But a North Korean ambassador soon contacted Richardson to explain that he had not meant to lead him astray in negotiations, and that he too had been kept in the dark.

“I believed him,” Richardson tells me. “In the 15 years I’ve been negotiating with him, he’s always been honest.”

Senator Portman and sources working inside North Korea at the time also stress that the foreign ministry did not know. The minister who was responsible for Otto was demoted and eventually disappeared, according to Michael Madden, a North Korea analyst who tracks its leadership. Even the guards on whose watch Otto was injured were likely sent to prison. All of which means that the full truth of what transpired is likely known only by Kim Jong-un and his most trusted lieutenants.

Otto Warmbier’s parents file lawsuit against North Korea

For all the unknowns, one certainty is that the Trump administration allowed the narrative that Otto had been repeatedly beaten to spread, long after it was clear those intelligence reports were almost certainly wrong. That the reports suggested that Otto had been beaten repeatedly when there was not time for that showed they were unreliable. The lack of physical evidence of beatings was widely publicised. The administration was informed of the correct timeline, and it was well known among government officials who worked on the case. And both the senior-level American officials and the congressional staffer confirm that the government never shared with them definitive evidence that Otto had been beaten.

Now, that is not to fault the Trump administration for applying maximum pressure on North Korea for an American citizen ending up brain damaged in its custody: such behaviour warrants punishment. Nor is it to imply that the senior government official lied to The New York Times about the intelligence reports, as some analysts suggest to me; that person seems to have correctly described them. But if the maverick boldness that the administration displayed in rescuing Otto represents the best of Trumpism, what followed once it was clear the reports were flawed encapsulates its troubling disregard for facts when a dubious narrative supports its interests.

It is impossible to say whether Trump had seen or parsed the nuances of the intelligence reports before he tweeted about Fred Warmbier’s Fox interview, supporting that Otto had been physically tortured. Or when he declared, before the South Korean National Assembly, that Otto had been “tortured”.

Perhaps those were just two more of the 3,001 false or misleading claims he advanced in his first 466 days in office, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker database. Or maybe it was a conscious strategy. Whatever it was, the misrepresentation helped push the US closer to war with North Korea than it had ever been. Though soon, of course, the administration would choose a different path.

The use of stories

When Fred hugged Otto that first night in the air ambulance, he felt that he could not get through to him and that his son was “very uncomfortable – almost anguished”. But “within a day, the countenance of his face changed”, the Warmbiers said. Though there was no way that Otto could communicate with them, they wrote, “he was home, and we believe he could sense that”. Otto, they said, was finally “at peace”.

We tell stories so that we can make sense of irresolvable unknowns and then act. While no one can prove what happened to Otto in those final few hours, as Trump encouraged the narrative that Otto had been beaten and the White House allowed speculation about possible beatings to spread, the administration gave people licence to indulge their worst fears about Otto’s fate and act accordingly.

In doing so, the Trump administration may have fostered misperceptions in the Warmbier family itself. During the year after highlighting the story that Otto was physically tortured, Trump praised Fred and Cindy as “good friends” and invited them to high-profile events. But Fred indicated on national television in September 2017 that he had no more knowledge of his son’s case than that put out by the news media.

Donald Trump says US student Otto Warmbier’s death wasn’t in vain as it lead to the North Korean summit

In the lawsuit the Warmbiers filed in April against North Korea for Otto’s death, they continued to assert evidence that he was repeatedly beaten. If they entertain the belief that their son’s last conscious moments were spent in fear and physical agony as he was assaulted, that may be the result of the administration’s unwillingness to acknowledge a different version of events, one that the facts support. But whatever they believe, what is clear is that they are loving parents, dealing with an unimaginably tragic loss, who have been striving to honour Otto’s legacy.

When presented with the findings of this article, the Trump administration declined to comment.

Upon learning that this article did not support claims that Otto had been beaten, and included the theory that he may have attempted suicide – a possibility that the family, through their lawyer, dismissed categorically – the Warmbiers withdrew a statement that they had previously provided. Ultimately, they declined to comment for this story.

In the absence of proof, we all have to choose what we want to believe about Otto’s tragedy. And in this political age, where truth seems enslaved to the agendas of the powerful, it is important to consider what story we believe and why. After all, the stories we tell ourselves and others shape our own fates, and those of nations, the world and other people’s children.

In the end, however, despite all the mystery still surrounding Otto, it is essential to remember two facts that endure as unyielding as gravestones: Otto’s death and the grief of those he left behind.

The summit

Fred Warmbier came face-to-face with the North Korean regime at this year’s Winter Olympics, held in South Korea, in February. Since the beginning of 2018, North Korea, hamstrung by sanctions and spooked by full-on preparations for war in Otto’s name, had been trying to reset relations with the outside world. The centrepiece of this diplomacy was a “charm offensive” at the Games – deploying squads of cherubic cheerleaders singing folk songs about reunification, and Kim Jong-un’s smiley sister shaking hands with world leaders.

The North Koreans even reportedly reached out to ask if Vice President Pence wanted to meet her, while warning him not to highlight Otto’s story. Instead, Pence invited Fred Warmbier to sit with him in the VIP box at the opening ceremony, not three metres from Kim’s sister. Fred barely even looked at her as he sat in grieving dignity, his sorrow rebuking her serene ambassadorial smirk.

In March, two top-level South Korean officials travelled to Pyongyang, where they feasted and drank traditional Korean liquor for four hours with Kim Jong-un, after which they were given a special message to deliver to Trump. The South Koreans rushed to Washington. On hearing the offer, and before consulting any of his advisers, the president accepted. Then, one of the South Koreans informed the world from the White House driveway that the two leaders would try to resolve their nations’ never-ended war in person.

‘I think he loved it’: the bizarre Hollywood-style video Donald Trump showed Kim Jong-un

From that point on, the White House no longer focused on Otto’s tragedy. In fact, it swung so far in the opposite direction that civil-rights groups complained about human-rights issues not being on the agenda for the summit in Singapore. When the three remaining American detainees were released in May, Trump welcomed them home by saying, “We want to thank Kim Jong-un, who really was excellent to these three incredible people.”

In short, the story of Otto being brutally beaten had outlived its usefulness.

In early June, Trump and Kim shook hands in front of the red, white and blue of both nations’ flags. In a private meeting, Trump showed Kim a Hollywood trailer-like video that laid out the choice between economic prosperity, if he gave up his nukes, or war. Then they signed a largely symbolic document after North Korea promised to denuclearise and America swore not to invade, though there were no enforcement mechanisms stipulated.

At Trump’s post-summit news conference, the first question a reporter asked was why the president had been praising Kim, as the dictator had been responsible for Otto’s death.

“Otto Warmbier is a very special person,” Trump answered. “I think, without Otto, this would not have happened.” Then he said twice, as if it was doubly true, or he was trying to convince himself, “Otto did not die in vain.”

Doug Bock Clark’s first book, The Last Whalers, will be published in January 2019. This story originally appeared in GQ magazine.