WASHINGTON, June 19, 2017 — After being imprisoned in North Korea for more than 17 months, 22-year-old Otto Warmbier has died. Warmbier was charged with committing “hostile acts” against the DPRK for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel in January 2016. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
Warmbier was in North Korea after working with Chinese company Young Pioneer Tours, that provides “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
Warmbier had planned to be in the country for a five-day stay before flying to Beijing to participate in a 10-day tour, sponsored by UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce, of two Asian financial capitals: Hong Kong and Singapore.
He returned home to Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 in a coma after being “brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime,” his family said at the time.
“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home,” his family said in a statement. “Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.”
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was medically evacuated from North Korea and flown to Cincinnati late last Tuesday. Doctors from the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said he was suffering from injuries related to cardiopulmonary arrest and was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness.
Scans showed the extensive loss of matter in all regions of Warmbier’s brain as a result of oxygen deprivation. There was no indication that the man suffered from any instance of botulism, doctors said.
President Trump noted Mr. Warmbier’s passing saying that North Korea is a “brutal regime.”
The family released the following statement:
“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost—future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds … we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched—Wyoming, Ohio, and the University of Virginia to name just two—that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.”
The family thanked “the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto.”
“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable—almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed—he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.”
Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, called Warmbier a “promising young man” and lamented his death.
“He was kind, generous and accomplished,” Portman said. “He had all the talent you could ever ask for and a bright future ahead of him. His passing today is a loss for Ohio and for all of us. Jane and I are lifting up the Warmbier family in our prayers at this difficult time, and we are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of this remarkable young Ohioan.”
On Friday, USA Today noted, “His situation represents the worst outcome for any American whom North Korea has detained.” During the last century, there have been only fifteen known cases of Americans detained in the DPRK; as of this writing, King Don Chul has been detained since October 2015 for espionage; Tony Kim has been in detention since April 21, 2017, and Kim Hak-Song since May 7, 2017.
The fifteen known cases of Americans detained in the DPRK is a small number relative to the thousands who have traveled there every year. Yet Warmbier’s case has the potential, because of the obvious abuse, to galvanize public opinion against the horrific regime.