Otto Warmbier was on his way to Hong Kong for a study abroad program when he saw a company offering trips to North Korea. The 11 tourist spent New Years Eve in Pyongyang’s Kim Il Sung Square before returning to their accommodations at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. Early the next morning, Otto allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda poster from the hotel.
On January 2, 2016 Otto was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport, as the tourist group planned to leave. Danny Gratton, a member of the tour group said. “No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of you.’ There’s a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.”
The other tourist boarded the plane. An official stepped aboard and told the group that “Otto is very sick and has been taken to the hospital.” The Korean Central News Agency initially claimed that Otto Warmbier was detailed for a hostile act, but did not give any more details. After six weeks of silence, Otto appeared in a press conference on February 29th. He read from a script that stated he had attempted to steal a poster from a staff-only area of the hotel. No one ever found out if this confession was coerced.
Otto’s supposed confession also stated that he had plotted to steal the poster at the behest of a Methodist church in his hometown and the Z Society, a secret society at the University of Virginia that he wished to join. He claimed both groups were allies with the Central Intelligence Agency. The New York Times remarked that “the unlikely nature of the details suggested the script had been written by Mr. Warmbier’s North Korean interrogators.” U.S. negotiator Mickey Bergman later stated that his family were advised to maintain silence about his Jewish heritage while he was under arrest, to not antagonise the North Korean regime.
On March 16, 2016, U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met in New York with two North Korean diplomats to ask for Otto Warmbier’s release. An hour later he was tried for the theft of the poster. Evidence included CCTV footage, his confession and witness testimony. The CCTV footage from the hotel was a low resolution video from 1:57 a.m. Someone could be seen removing the poster from a hallway wall, then placing it on the floor. Otto’s confession said he had left the poster after realizing that it was too large. He was sentence to 15 years hard labor. Human Rights Watch commented on his sentencing as being outrageous. Many believe that North Korea was using Otto for political leverage.
On June 12, 2017, Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, announced that North Korea had released Otto Warmbier. North Korea official Joseph Yun reported thatr Otto had contracted food-borne botulism and had fallen into a coma. On June 14th 2017 Otto was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. The doctors determined that he was in a persistent vegetative state. He could breathe and blink on his own but was deaf and blind. He did not seem aware of his environment. His head was shaved and he had a feeding tube.
The medical records from North Korea showed Otto had been this way since April 2016- One month after his conviction. They had released two MRI scans, one from April and July of 2016. They showed an extentive loss of brain tissue, something often seen when the brain is deprived of oxygen. Cincinnati Medical Center found no evidence of botulism. They said physicians found no evidence of physical abuse or torture; scans of Warmbier’s neck and head were normal outside of the brain injury.
Otto Warmbier died in the hospital at 2:20 p.m. on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22.
His family requested that to not have an autopsy performed. Doctors speculated that the cause of death could have been a blood clot, pneumonia, sepsis or kidney failure. Sleeping pills could have caused Warmbier to stop breathing if he had botulism and was paralyzed from it, but no signs of botulism had been found. Several doctors said that it could not be ruled out because of the length of time before he was returned to the U.S. There was a 4.3-by-1.6-inch scar on Warmbier’s right foot. On the coroner’s report, Otto Warmbier’s manner of death is listed as “undetermined.”
What happened to Otto while he was in North Korea’s custody, may forever be a secret.