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.
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.