The Tragic story of the US student freed by North Korea, brain damaged

Otto Warmbier was ‘brutalised and terrorised’ during 15 months in prison, father says

North Korea's supreme court sentences American student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested while visiting the country, to 15 years of hard labour for crimes against the state. Video: Reuters


For more than a year, while their son Otto was a prisoner in North Korea, Fred and Cindy Warmbier knew nothing about his fate. Then, over the last week, the Warmbiers finally received some news: First, the family learned that Otto, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, was gravely ill, and then that he would be coming home. But his return has been heart-wrenching for the family and this small community that has wrapped its arms around them.

On Thursday, doctors caring for Otto Warmbier at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center delivered grim news: He had suffered “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of his brain”, most likely caused by “cardiopulmonary arrest”, which cut off the blood supply to his brain.

Based on two MRI scans sent by the North Koreans, the doctors concluded Mr Warmbier had suffered his catastrophic brain injury sometime before April 2016. “His neurological condition can best be described as a state of unresponsive wakefulness,” said Dr Daniel Kanter, medical director at the centre’s neuroscience intensive care unit.

Mr Warmbier has “spontaneous eye-opening and blinking”, Dr Kanter said, but “shows no signs of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or awareness of his surroundings”.

The doctors spoke just hours after Fred Warmbier attacked North Korea as a “pariah regime” that had “brutalised and terrorised” his son. He described the homecoming as “bittersweet” and called his son “a fighter”, adding sombrely, “We’re trying to make him comfortable.’’

Stole a poster

The statements from the father and the University of Cincinnati doctors – on a day when North Korea claimed it had freed Otto Warmbier on “humanitarian grounds” – shed little light on what he has endured since March 2016, when he tearfully confessed to stealing a propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour after a one-hour trial.

And the case threatened to further damage the tense relationship between the United States and the North. While North Korea claimed that Warmbier collapsed from a combination of botulism and sleeping pills, the doctors appeared to dismiss that theory, saying there was no evidence the young man had botulism. A senior US official said this week that Warmbier was singled out for particularly brutal beatings while in captivity, but doctors said they saw no evidence of beatings.

“We have very few answers,” Fred Warmbier said. This much is known: in December 2015, Otto Warmbier embarked on a five-day tour of the North with a Chinese company that advertised “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from”. Warmbier was detained at the Pyongyang airport in early January 2016 as he tried to leave and was charged with an unspecified “hostile act” against the government.

Two months later, he was in a courtroom, wearing a cream-coloured jacket and looking distraught as he gave a televised statement. On Thursday, Fred Warmbier addressed reporters wearing that same jacket, and fought back tears as he spoke of it.

“I’m able to wear the jacket he wore when he gave his confession,” the anguished father said, his voice cracking. “I’m not confessing, I’m speaking, but Otto, I love you and I’m so crazy about you, and I’m so glad you’re home.”

Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, holding a press conference wearing his son’s jacket in Wyoming, Ohio on Thursday. Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, holding a press conference wearing his son’s jacket in Wyoming, Ohio on Thursday. Photograph: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

During the news conference, Fred Warmbier lashed out at the tour company, Young Pioneer Tours, and accused North Korea of endangering Americans by using tour companies to lure them to the North, where they can be taken into custody. He dismissed the North’s explanation of his son’s condition.

“Even if you believe their explanation of botulism and a sleeping pill causing the coma – and we don’t – there is no excuse for any civilised nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long,” he said.

Relief and sadness

In Wyoming, a close-knit city of 8,400 near Cincinnati where the Warmbiers live on a private lane near a golf course, Otto Warmbier’s release brought mixed feelings – relief that he was home, but also sadness over his medical condition. Every Sunday, the local churches have prayed for his safe return.

“Now, we’ll pray for his health,” said Sherry Sheffield, Wyoming’s unofficial historian. Tree trunks and telephone poles along Springfield Pike, the city’s main thoroughfare, were decorated with blue and white ribbons, the colours of the local high school, where Warmbier played soccer and was voted homecoming king. Residents lined the street in front of the school in a show of respect for family members as they left Thursday’s news conference.

Still, Sheffield said, many people have questions. “What kind of tour company takes people to North Korea?” she asked.

For much of the 17 months that Warmbier was in North Korean custody, his parents maintained public silence. A family friend, Michael Forsythe, said Wednesday that the situation was kind of like the “elephant in the room” – everyone shared the family’s grief, but no one wanted to bring it up.

Fred Warmbier said he and his wife had travelled to Washington a dozen times and met with numerous officials, including secretary of state John Kerry, as well as the Swedish ambassador to the United States, when Barack Obama was president. Sweden has acted as an interlocutor between the United States and North Korea.

Senator Rob Portman, who has grown close to the Warmbiers, said he had dozens of meetings with US, Swedish and North Korean officials to try to secure Otto Warmbier’s release. But he said the talks became increasingly difficult and fruitless as relations between the United States and the North deteriorated further over the North’s missile tests.

Failed silence

“There was this larger geopolitical conflict that he got caught up in, sadly,” the senator said. Eventually, the Warmbiers concluded that their silence had done little or nothing, and last month they spoke out on the Fox News programme Fox & Friends.

“Nothing Otto may or may not have done in North Korea rises to this level of punishment,” Fred Warmbier said then. He added that he wanted his son’s case to be “included in any dialogue or diplomacy with North Korea.”

Last month, North Korean officials asked for an emergency meeting with their US counterparts in New York, opening the door for Otto Warmbier’s return. But the Warmbiers learned of their son’s grave medical condition only last week. The father said the family now felt liberated, unafraid to speak their minds.

He also praised the Trump administration for working to free his son, and made clear his displeasure with the Obama administration officials who he said had advised the family to stay quiet to avoid antagonising the North.

“The results speak for themselves,” Fred Warmbier said when asked whether the Obama administration had done enough. He said President Donald Trump had called him Wednesday night and told him, “We worked hard, and I’m sorry this is the outcome.”

Experts say it is extremely difficult for any administration to have sway with an authoritarian government like North Korea. The White House, for example, cannot afford to have a hostage negotiation complicate other issues, like the North’s nuclear programme or the economic sanctions the United States has imposed. But the standard recommendation to families – to remain quiet and avoid publicity – can only deepen their despair and isolation.


Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state under Mr Obama, said the Trump administration deserves “credit for being dogged” in pursuing Otto Warmbier’s release, but had done little differently from the Obama administration. And Robert King, the special envoy for North Korea human rights issues who retired in January, noted that the younger Warmbier had ignored the explicit advice of the state department, which has a notice on its website that “strongly warns” US citizens not to travel to North Korea.

“This is a problem where the North Koreans did the wrong thing,” Mr King said in an interview. “This is not a case where the US made mistakes in terms of our efforts. We did everything we could to deal with that case.”

New York Times service