A year after American college student Otto Warmbier died in his mother's arms following his return from North Korea in a coma, mystery continues to surround his tragic case.
Just what happened to the Virginia University student, who’d gone to North Korea on a five-day tour and had come back 17 months later in a vegetative state? President Donald Trump and Warmbier’s grieving family have repeatedly stated that the 22-year-old, who was arrested in Pyongyang in January 2016 for removing a propaganda poster, was beaten and physically tortured by his captors.
But now, author and investigate journalist Doug Bock Clark disputes these claims, arguing that rather than being physically tortured, Warmbier may have attempted to kill himself. “Of the dozen of experts I spoke to, only a single one thought there was even a remote likelihood that he had been beaten,” Clark wrote in GQ magazine. Clark quotes medical experts suggesting the student may have fallen unconscious due to an allergy rather than because he was beaten. Further, he added, Trump has gone quiet on the matter.
Dr Ben Habib, a lecturer in international relations at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, says Clark’s theories are “quite plausible. Americans are very rarely tortured in North Korea. They’re of more value if they’re unharmed—they’re more of a ‘bargaining chip.’ ” He said usually when an American was detained, US authorities would later negotiate to release their citizen, which could result in some form of material gain for North Korea.
Warmbier had signed up to take a trip with 10 other tourists in late December 2015 with Chinese tour operator Young Pioneer Tours. The tourists had flown from China into the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, gone sightseeing, then celebrated New Year’s Eve surrounded by a crowd of local revellers in the city square. Back at their accommodation, Yanggakdo International Hotel, Warmbier went to remove a propaganda poster from the wall and was photographed doing this by cameras within the hotel. That seemingly trivial offence would have the direst of consequences. “Stealing that poster was such a stupid thing to do. He got himself way out of his depth,” says Dr Habib, who has stayed at the same hotel several times. “He should have known better. Anyone who goes to North Korea is briefed extensively about what to do and what not to do—the government there runs by different rules. It’s drummed into you, if you cross the line, expect ramifications.”
On Jan. 2 2016, Warmbier was the last of the group to check in at the airport for the flight home. After he handed over his passport, guards led him away. While his friends sat on the plane waiting, an official boarded to announce, “Otto is very sick and has been taken to the hospital.” Six weeks later, North Korea’s news service released footage of the student sobbing as he confessed he’d attempted to steal the poster. Two weeks later, distressing images of Warmbier being sentenced to 15 years imprisonment with hard labour were televised.
As US officials scrambled to get him released, America’s poor relations with North Korea made the task excruciatingly slow. Finally, on June 13, 2017, after extensive negotiations, he was flown home to his family, who quickly recognised their unconscious boy’s life was over. Warmbier died six days later after his parents made the decision to remove his life support.
It now appears that within a few weeks of his capture, Warmbier suffered extensive brain damage. North Korean officials have denied he was tortured and maintained his unconscious state was due to botulism, an infection associated with food poisoning. Warmbier’s grieving parents, Fred and Cindy, remain convinced their son was tortured. They claim that along with his catastrophic brain damage, he had a scar on his foot and his teeth appeared to have been wrenched. Says Clark in his article: “Even if North Korea didn’t beat Otto, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t tortured, as the mental suffering the regime inflicted on him constitutes torture under the UN definition.”
WHO approached Cindy Warmbier for comment, but did not hear back. In April this year, the couple filed a lawsuit against North Korea. In it, they state their son was “taken hostage, kept as a prisoner for political purposes, used as a pawn and singled out for exceptionally harsh and brutal treatment by Kim Jong-un.” Says Dr Habib, “Without eyewitness accounts, there’s never going to be a definitive answer as to what happened.” He says, however, that Australian tourists should feel safe travelling to North Korea. “I feel safer going there than I do walking through Melbourne’s Federation Square. Just stick to the rules.”