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.
Listen: Mia Freedman and Amelia Lester deep-dive on the relationship between the United States and North Korea. Post continues after audio.
The Chinese-based tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, 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.
There were 10 Americans in Warmbier’s tour group.
On the second night, they celebrated New Year’s Eve in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square, and in the early hours of the morning returned to their accommodation where they continued to drink alcohol.
Here, it is alleged that Warmbier came across a propaganda poster 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 purported 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.
If Warmbier did indeed remove the poster, he had no knowledge that anyone saw him. He returned to his room and went to sleep.
On the morning of the 2nd of January, the day they were due to leave, the hotel mysteriously forgot the wake-up call for the American tour group. Because of this, Warmbier, and a man named Danny Gratton who he had roomed with on his trip, were among the last to go through security at Pyongyang International Airport.
Gratton says that after they handed their passports to the immigration officer, there was a long pause.
Two North Korean security officials then approached Warmbier and without saying a word took him to a private room.
“I just said kind of nervously, ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of you,'” Gratton told The Washington Post, about that day in the airport.