Returned from North Korea 'inhuman': What really happened to Otto Warmbier?

Note: This post discusses torture, and may be distressing for some readers.

It might have been the words, “The trip your parents don’t want you to take!” that caught Otto Warmbier’s eye in late December 2015, as he stood in a travel centre deciding where to go next.

Warmbier was in China, on his way to Hong Kong where he would be completing his study abroad program.

At the time, Warmbier was 21 years old and in his third year at the University of Virginia, studying a double major degree in commerce and economics. His friends described him as a person with a “strong work ethic and a delight in the ridiculousness”. He could reel off countless sporting statistics, and loved half-price sushi. Warmbier was also “insatiably curious” and a “deep thinker who would challenge himself” – two qualities that would unequivocally influence his fate.

The question ‘What happened to Otto Warmbier?’ still remains, months after we learned how his story ended. In this month’s issue of GQ titled, ‘American Hostage: The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier,’ journalist Doug Bock Clark explores what we now know to be true about the 21-year-old who was imprisoned in North Korea.

Warmbier chose to travel to the authoritarian state after seeing an ad by Chinese-based tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, which offered a five-day New Year’s tour of North Korea and advertised itself as safe for U.S. citizens.

Two and a half years later, we now know that trip would be lethal for Warmbier. His name has now become synonymous with one of the world’s most frightening totalitarian regimes.
It was alleged that Warmbier came across a propaganda poster on a night out in the staff-only area of Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo International Hotel that read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” It’s alleged that he attempted to steal it.

In North Korea, harming, defacing or stealing any items associated with their leader or regime, is considered a serious and punishable offence.

When Warmbier arrived at the airport to depart from North Korea on January 2, two days after the alleged theft took place, two North Korean security officials approached him and without saying a word took him to a private room.

The college student was arrested.

On February 29, a televised confession was released, which featured Warmbier breaking down in tears and admitting he had “made the worst mistake of [his] life”. He said that a member of his church had offered to buy him a $10,000 car in exchange for the poster, and in doing so he had tried to bring down the “foundation of [North Korea’s] single-minded unity”. Various experts believe the confession was written for him.

The following month, Warmbier was officially charged with subversion and committing a “hostile act” against the state. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labour.

Otto Warmbier broke down after being sentenced.

It is believed that by March 2016, the 21-year-old had fallen into a coma as a result of a severe neurological injury. But what was the cause?

Clark, who has interviewed dozens of experts and spoken to North Korean officials, does not believe Warmbier was physically tortured – a theory initially espoused.

Dr Michael Flueckiger, medical director of Phoenix Air Group, was sent to North Korea to assess Warmbier. Dr Fleuckiger did not believe it was Warmbier at first. He was pale, unable to move, and had a feeding tube through his nostrils.

Clark writes: “Flueckiger clapped beside Otto’s ear. No meaningful response. Sadness flooded him. He had two children and struggled to imagine one in such a state…”

Two North Korean doctors then told Dr Flueckiger that Warbier had arrived at hospital in a vegetative state more than a year prior, and had experienced extensive brain damage.


For Dr Fleuckiger, Clark writes, “the truth had been evident at first sight: The Otto of old was already gone… He was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness.” Warmbier was incapacitated, unable to even go to the toilet on his own.

So, if Warmbier had not been physically tortured, then what happened to him?

Clark has a few probable theories.

Though he does not believe Warmbier was physically tortured, he does think he was psychologically tortured.

It is understood that Warmbier would have undergone 15 hour days of interrogation. His only break would have been to watch North Korea propaganda films. The then 21-year-old was denied any contact with the outside world. He was ostracised from his family, his friends and his girlfriend who he believed to be his ‘soulmate’.

It is possible Warmbier had an allergic reaction to a sleeping pill or some other type of medication, as the North Koreans initially claimed. A brain scan showed no sign of trauma, but instead revealed he had likely been deprived of oxygen.

The other theory Clark puts forward, is that Warmbier may have attempted to take his own life. Americans imprisoned in North Korea have attempted to do so in the past, terrified by the prospect of years upon years in a forced labour camp.

What we know for sure, is that when Warmbier returned to the United States, ‘freed’ after spending 17 months in confinement, his father heard him before he saw him.

Fred Warmbier heard “inhuman howls” coming from a stretcher inside the airplane. He was jerking violently and wailing.

His mother, Cindy Wambier, had expected their son would be a changed man – but this was beyond comprehension.

Clark writes: “Otto’s arms and legs were ‘totally deformed’ according to his parents. His wavy brown locks had been buzzed off. A feeding tube infiltrated his nostrils. ‘It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and re-arranged his bottom teeth,’ as Fred would say. According to Cindy, Otto’s sister fled the plane, screaming, and Cindy ran after her.”

On June 19, 2017, only days after returning home, Otto Warmbier died.

What we know for sure is that North Korea is one of the worst places to be imprisoned on the planet. It’s record of human rights abuses are as appalling as they are extensive.

The torture Warmbier endured was not at all commensurate with tearing a poster off a hotel wall – an act which ultimately, years later, we are still not certain he was guilty of.

Read the full investigation by Doug Bock Clark on GQ: The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.

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