MIA FREEDMAN: What happened to Otto Warmbier is the nightmare of every parent whose kid goes travelling.

There are currently a lot of parents around Australia preparing to say goodbye to their kids as they finish school and go on a trip. Maybe it will be to Schoolies. Maybe a gap-year. In the minds of all of them (OK, mostly the mothers) will be the face and the story of Otto Warmbier.

Mamamia published a story this week about the details of what happened to Otto Warmbier and they are chilling.

Otto Warmbier. Image via Facebook.

The 21-year-old American university student was on a study abroad program in China when he decided to take a quick tour with The Chinese-based tour company, Young Pioneer Tours who offered a five-day New Year’s tour of North Korea and advertised itself as safe for U.S. citizens. Warmbier, on a whim, decided to go.

It was advertised as, “The trip your parents don’t want you to take!”

There were 10 Americans in Warmbier’s tour group and on the second night, after a few drinks, Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a poster that was on the wall of their hotel. A poster. He was arrested a few days later at the airport as he was leaving the country with his tour group. He was officially charged with subversion and committing a "hostile act" against the state. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour.

What happened next is unclear but devastating and ultimately fatal. Mamamia reports:

It is believed that by March, 2016, the 21-year-old had fallen into a coma as a result of a severe neurological injury. We do not know the cause.

North Korean authorities did not disclose this medical information for another 15 months. They claimed he had fallen into a coma as a result of botulism, an illness caused by a bacteria carried in food or water.

The United States made several pleas for Warmbier's release, and eventually he was freed in June 2017 following 17 months in prison.

In June of this year, Warmbier was flown home to Cincinnati, Ohio and was immediately taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he was treated by Dr Daniel Kanter.

Dr Kanter described his condition as a state of "unresponsive wakefulness". It was confirmed that the university student had sustained extensive loss of tissue in all regions of the brain, and no tests revealed any evidence of botulism.

Listen to a snippet of Tell Me It's Going To Be OK, all about North Korea. (Post continues after audio...)

"This pattern of brain injury, however, is usually seen as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest where the blood supply to the brain is inadequate for a period of time resulting in the death of brain tissue," Dr Kanter said.

Warmbier's parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, spoke to Fox in a television interview this week, and stated emphatically that North Korea had "systematically tortured" their son.

Upon his return, Fred and Cindy said he was "jerking violently," and making "inhuman sounds".

"Otto was systematically tortured and intentionally injured by Kim and his regime," Fred Warmbier said.

In a statement to the press the family said, "When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th, he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home, and we believe he could sense that."

On June the 19th, only days after returning home, Otto Warmbier died.

[You can read the full story about what happened to Otto Warmbier on Mamamia here]

If you've ever travelled overseas, you'll no doubt have memories of dumb, risky, reckless even maybe illegal things you did. There's something about being in another country that can make you feel like bad things won't happen. Or that the rules don't apply to you. Also, young people just do stupid things sometimes. We've all been there.


At the time though, it doesn't feel stupid. Or reckless. It feels free. And fun. And perfectly OK, even hilarious. When I travelled with girlfriends during my gap year, I did all manner of risky things. My girlfriends and I tried to earn money by washing car windscreens at traffic lights in Florence even though we were repeatedly warned by police that it was illegal. We ignored them. There are other things we did or thought about doing during that year that I'm not going to write down because my children are not old enough to read this. Needless to say, if we'd been caught, things could have been dire.

Thankfully for them, my parents had no idea. Parents rarely do. Unless something goes wrong.

Now I'm a parent myself, with a son who is old enough to travel. And he did last year, in South America. I texted and whatsapped and facetimed a lot. A lot. More than he would have liked. Certainly 1000x more than my own parents could with me back in 1990 when our only communication options were letters (written on paper and sent to the local post office) or occasional reverse-charge phonecalls I would make from a phone-booth.

This is what a phone booth looked like in the olden days. You used it to make phone calls when you were not in your house.

On one particularly memorable night, my phone rang at midnight. It was Luca. "Hey Mum, I'm really sick. Like really sick," he said, sounding dreadful. "I'm about to set off to climb the Inca trail and I have a raging fever and I won't be able to call you for at least four days."

"Wait! I think you should postpone for a few days until you're better," I blurted out, panicked. "It's too late," he replied, coughing. "We're at the bottom of the mountain right now and we're about to climb. I'll talk to you hopefully next week. Love you."

And then he hung up.


And there I was, sitting bolt upright in bed at midnight halfway across the world from my baby who wasn't a baby anymore but was sick and god knows where and with god knows who and I couldn't do a single thing to help him or even reach him for an update.

If you want to read about the next few days from his perspective (and I highly recommend you do), you can read his account of the worst few days of his life on the Inca Trail here.

The next few days of my life went something like this:


I felt like I was on hold as I realised there was absolutely nothing I could do to change whatever was going on. And ultimately, that's the lesson parenting teaches us again and again and again. That we have to let go. Whether they're getting on a bus or a plane or taking their first steps or driving for the first time... you have to swallow your heart back into your chest and hope for the best.

Unlike the poor Warmbier family, I got my call from my son to reassure me everything was OK. A few weeks later, he arrived home, a little older and wiser and more worldly. With some excellent stories to tell. Because that's what we want for our children each time they stretch their wings and fly a little further from us. To go out into the world and come back to us safely.

The fact Otto Warmbier was denied that opportunity, that safe home-coming, is a tragedy that may never be fully explained.

You can listen to the full episode of Tell Me It's Going To Be OK, here.

Mia Freedman is the co-founder of Mamamia Women's Media Company. She is a proud patron for Rize Up, the charity supporting women and children fleeing from domestic violence, an ambassador for Share The Dignity, the charity which provides sanitary products to vulnerable women who are homeless, disadvantaged or the victims of domestic violence and an ambassador for Sydney Dogs and Cats home, a no-kill shelter where thousands of animals are rehomed with forever families. She is also a proud supporter of Ladystartups, an initiative she began to support women who have started their own business.

She is the author of the best-selling book Work Strife Balance for every woman who feel like she's the only one not coping (you're not) and the host and co-host of three podcasts: No Filter, Mamamia Outloud and Tell Me It's Going To Be OK (even though Trump is President).

The award-winning podcast Mamamia Out Loud is doing their first live show. There will be laughs, disagreements and you can meet the hosts afterwards! We’re also donating $5 of every ticket price to Share The Dignity so grab your friends and come along to share the love and laughs, get your tickets here.