Otto Frederick Warmbier (December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American university student who, while visiting North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being accused of stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel lobby.
|Born||Otto Frederick Warmbier
December 12, 1994
|Died||June 19, 2017
|Education||Wyoming High School (2013)|
|Alma mater||University of Virginia|
|Known for||Arrest and imprisonment in
Two months after his imprisonment, Warmbier suffered a major medical crisis that caused severe neurological injury. North Korean authorities said Warmbier's coma was a result of botulism and a sleeping pill, although U.S. physicians found no evidence of botulism. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier's release, and Warmbier was released in June 2017, after nearly 18 months in captivity. Warmbier arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 and was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment.
Warmbier died on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States, where some U.S. officials blamed North Korea for his death. He was one of 16 American citizens detained by North Korea since 1996, including three who are still in custody.
Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, one of three children of Fred and Cindy (née Garber) Warmbier, and was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. His father, Fred Warmbier, owns his own business, a metal-finishing company, that was featured in Forbes for its rapid growth in 2015. The family was of Jewish descent on his mother's side.
His maternal grandfather was Charles Garber, a pharmacist in Cincinnati.[a] In 2014, Fred contributed to the The New York Times' blog titled You're the Boss about running a small business. Otto worked as an intern at the company from 2010 to 2013.
Warmbier graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013 as the class salutatorian, the second-highest ranking student that year. He was considered popular and studious, and played on the football team, with his coach saying he was a gifted player and a natural leader. He had two younger siblings.
At the time of his trip to China, followed by a side-trip to North Korea, he was a junior at the University of Virginia, where he was studying for a double major degree in commerce and economics and did an exchange at the London School of Economics. His minor was in global sustainability. Besides being a brother of the Theta Chi fraternity, he was active in the Hillel Jewish campus organization at the University of Virginia, and had visited Israel in a Birthright Israel heritage trip for young Jewish adults, a visit he described in a blog post.
In May 2017 the Washington Post interviewed some his college friends, who described him, according to the paper, as a "sports fan who can reel off stats about seemingly any team, a friendly Midwesterner who can break down underground rap lyrics (and craft some of his own), a deep thinker who would challenge himself and others to question their place in the world, a guy from an entrepreneurial family who ate half-price sushi, an insatiably curious person with a strong work ethic and a delight in the ridiculous."
Trip to North Korea
Fred Warmbier stated that his son Otto was traveling in China at the end of 2015 when he saw a company offering trips to North Korea. He decided to go because he was adventurous, according to his father, who accused the tour operator of specifically targeting young Westerners with slogans like, "This is the trip your parents don't want you to take!" Fred Warmbier said the China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, advertised the trip as safe for U.S. citizens. Danny Gratton, a British sales manager, met Warmbier in Beijing when boarding the flight to Pyongyang. The two became friends and roommates on the trip, and remained together until Warmbier was arrested.
Warmbier traveled to North Korea for a five-day New Year's tour of the country organized by Young Pioneer Tours. Ten other U.S. citizens were in his tour group. During his stay at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the hotel, supposedly as a souvenir.
The poster stated, "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il's patriotism!" Harming or stealing such items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the North Korean government.
A video purporting to show the theft was released by state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 18, 2016. In the 18-second low-resolution video, an unrecognizable figure removes the sign from the wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. This action is shown twice, followed by a higher-resolution picture of the sign on the wall. The face of the person removing the poster is not seen during the video clip.
Arrest and conviction
On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested for theft just prior to departing North Korea from Pyongyang International Airport. Gratton witnessed the arrest. "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 others in his tour group left the country without incident. His crime was described as "a hostile act against the state" by the North Korean news agency KCNA.
Warmbier was tried and convicted for the theft of the propaganda banner from a restricted area of the hotel. Evidence at his trial included his confession, CCTV footage, fingerprint evidence, and witness testimony.
In a press conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier, reading from a prepared statement, repeated his confession that he had stolen the banner to take back to the United States. It is not known whether Warmbier made the admission under duress, while Human Rights Watch deputy director Phil Robertson called the hearing a kangaroo court.
On March 16, 2016, two hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for Warmbier's release, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Human Rights Watch called the sentencing "outrageous and shocking", while U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that it was clear that North Korea used arrested American citizens for political purposes despite its claims to the contrary. Some news media have likewise inferred that the harsh sentence was in response to heightened tensions with the U.S..
In May 2017, Warmbier's father said he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea. According to Warmbier's father, the Obama administration had encouraged them to keep a low profile about their son's situation.
On June 12, 2017, Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, announced that North Korea had released Warmbier. Tillerson also announced that the U.S. State Department secured Warmbier's release at the direction of President Donald Trump. Tillerson said that the State Department continues discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.
A week before Warmbier's release, his parents were told by North Korean officials that their son had contracted food-borne botulism sometime after his trial and fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. In the U.S., however, doctors found no evidence of botulism after examining him. There was no way to find out what happened to him prior to his release since there had been no contact with North Korean medical authorities during that year and a half.
After 17 months in prison, Warmbier, in a comatose state, was flown to Cincinnati, Ohio, arriving in the evening of June 13, 2017. He was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors tried to determine what caused his coma and if there were signs of recovery.
Warmbier's physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center stated that he was in "a state of unresponsive wakefulness," a condition commonly known as persistent vegetative state. He was able to breathe on his own, and blink his eyes, but otherwise did not respond to his environment.
Medical records from North Korea showed that Warmbier had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. During his release, the North Koreans provided a disk containing two magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain studies, dated April and July 2016, showing damage to the brain.
According to his medical team, brain scans revealed Warmbier had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain, consistent with a cardiopulmonary event that caused the brain to be denied oxygen. Doctors said they did not know what caused the cardiac arrest, but that it could have been triggered by a respiratory arrest, while a neurointensive care specialist at the hospital stated that there was no evidence indicating 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.
Warmbier's father held a press conference on June 15, but declined to answer a reporter's question as to whether or not the neurological injury was caused by an assault, saying he would let the doctors make that determination. He stated that they did not believe anything the North Koreans told them. He expressed anger at the North Koreans for his son's condition, saying, "There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret, and denied him top-notch medical care for so long."
Death and public reactions
Warmbier died in the hospital at 2:20 p.m. on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22. His family issued a statement expressing their sadness, thanking the hospital staff for their actions. President Trump issued a statement regarding Warmbier's death: "There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto's family and friends, and all who loved him."
An autopsy on Warmbier will not be performed at the request of his family and only external examination will be conducted. 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. The University of Cincinnati doctors didn’t find any evidence of botulism, but several neurologists said that doesn’t rule it out. They said it might not be possible to detect any sign of it after so many months.
After his death, Young Pioneers, the tour company that organized the trip for Warmbier and his friends, announced that it stopped offering trips to North Korea for Americans. One U.S. official notes that the State Department's website has for years strongly warned Americans to avoid traveling to North Korea.
- "The video that North Korea says proves US student tried to steal banner". The Independent. March 18, 2016. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
- "North Korea Says It's Holding U.S. Student for 'Hostile Act'". The New York Times. January 23, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based company that operates tours to North Korea, said in a statement that one of its clients, identified as "Otto," was being detained in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
- "Coma-stricken student released from North Korea arrives back in US", ABC News, June 12, 2017
- Svrluga, Susan (June 19, 2017). "Otto Warmbier dies days after release from North Korean detainment". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2017.(subscription required)
- "John McCain: Otto Warmbier 'murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime'", Washington Examiner, June 19, 2017
- "Otto Warmbier Got an Extra Dose of Brutality From North Korea. The Mystery Is Why.", The New York Times, June 14, 2017
- Dawson, Steve (January 16, 2017). "What Happened to Otto Warmbier & Updates". The Gazette Review. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
- Allan, Kelly (September 30, 2015). "How One Small Business Owner Dealt with the Stress of Unexpected Fast Growth". Forbes. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
- Obituary of Otto Warmbier's maternal grandfather, Charles Garber, The Cincinnati Enquirer, February 28, 1992, p. 20
- Obituary clip, Cincinnati Enquirer, February 28, 1992
- Dolsten, Josefin (June 16, 2017). "Otto Warmbier, American student released from North Korea, was active in Hillel". JTA. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
- Warmbier, Fred (October 20, 2014). "You're the Boss Blog: Meeting Face-to-Face With Our Unhappy Customer". The New York Times. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
- Pearson, James; Kim, Jack (March 1, 2016). "North Korea says U.S. student confessed to theft of item with propaganda slogan". Reuters. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
- "Otto Warmbier: How did North Korea holiday end in jail, and a coma?". BBC News. June 18, 2017. Retrieved June 22, 2017.
- "As he prepared to leave high school, Otto Warmbier celebrated 'finale' and the future ahead", wcpo.com, June 20, 2017; accessed June 22, 2017.
- "Worried about North Korea? Spare a thought for Otto Warmbier's family.". The Washington Post. Retrieved May 3, 2017.(subscription required)
- Sumter, Kyler (June 14, 2017). "University of Virginia community welcomes Otto Warmbier's release from North Korea". USA Today. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- Campbell, Charlie. "The Detention of a U.S. Student in North Korea Underscores the Risks of Traveling There". Time. Retrieved February 7, 2016.
- "Wyoming grad arrested in North Korea for 'hostile act'". The Cincinnati Enquirer. January 22, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- "Average Malls and Western Walls", blog post by Otto Warmbier, Dec. 26, 2014
- "Parents of American student released from North Korea hold news conference". YouTube. June 15, 2017. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
- Rogin, Josh; Rogin, Josh (June 15, 2017). "Otto Warmbier's North Korea roommate speaks out". The Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved June 20, 2017.
- Beard, Rowan. "Otto Warmbier – Jail Sentence Statement". Retrieved March 16, 2016.
- "North Korea arrests US student for 'hostile act'". BBC. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- James Pearson (January 23, 2016). "U.S. student detained in North Korea 'over hotel incident'". Reuters. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
- Nick Anderson (January 22, 2016). "Tour group to N. Korea takes people places 'your mother would rather you stayed away from'". The Washington Post. Retrieved January 23, 2016.(subscription required)
- "North Korea puts tearful detained American before cameras". Los Angeles Times. February 29, 2016. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
- "Otto Warmbier Dead: 5 Fast Facts You Need to Know", Heavy, June 19, 2017
- Sang-Hun, Choe. "U.S. Student Runs Afoul of North Korea's Devotion to Slogans". The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
- "N. Korea: Video shows Wyoming grad remove sign". Cincinnati.com. Retrieved March 19, 2016.
- Nevett, Joshua (March 18, 2016). "North Korea releases CCTV of American student committing 'crime' that gave him 15 years hard labour". Mirror.
- "North Korea sentences U.S. student to 15 years hard labor", CNN, March 17, 2016
- Robertson, Phil. "Death of Otto Warmbier Highlights North Korea Rights Abuses", Human Rights Watch, June 20, 2017
- "N Korea sentences US student to 15 years hard labour". Retrieved March 16, 2016.
- Fifield, Anna; Svrluga, Susan; Morello, Carol (March 16, 2016). "North Korea sentences U-Va. student to 15 years of hard labor in prison". The Washington Post. Retrieved November 28, 2016.(subscription required)
- "US student Otto Warmbier given hard labour in North Korea". BBC News. March 16, 2016. Retrieved March 19, 2016.
- "North Korea sentences Virginia student to 15 years hard labor". Chicago Tribune news services. March 16, 2016.
- "Parents of Otto Warmbier, US citizen detained in North Korea, want son to be part of negotiations". Fox News Channel. May 1, 2017.
- Calamur, Krishnadev. "Otto Warmbier's Father Says He's Proud of His Son, Praises Trump's Efforts". The Atlantic. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "Otto Warmbier's father praises President Trump for bringing his son home from North Korea". The Week. Peter Weber. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
- "US university student medically evacuated in a coma as Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea". Associated Press. June 13, 2017. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
- "Doctors: Ex-North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier has severe brain injury", CNN, June 16, 2017
- Davis, Julie Hirschfeld; Goldman, Russell; Goldman, Adam (June 13, 2017). "Otto Warmbier, Detained American, Is Evacuated From North Korea in a Coma". The New York Times. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
- "Otto Warmbier's Medical Test: "Extensive" Brain Damage, Not Botulism", Inverse Science, June 15, 2017
- Ripley, Will; Berlinger, Joshua; Brennan, Allison (June 13, 2017). "Comatose Otto Warmbier lands in US after release by North Korea". CNN. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
- "US college student released by North Korea arrives in Ohio". ABC News. June 13, 2017.
- Fox, Maggie. "Otto Warmbier has bad brain damage, his doctors say". NBC News. Retrieved June 22, 2017.
- Svrluga, Susan (June 15, 2017). "Otto Warmbier has extensive loss of brain tissue, no obvious signs of trauma, doctors say". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 15, 2017.(subscription required)
- Berlinger, Joshua (June 15, 2017). "Ex-North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier has 'severe neurological injury'". CNN. Retrieved June 22, 2017.
- Stolberg, Sheryl Gay (June 19, 2017). "Otto Warmbier, American Student Released From North Korea, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved June 22, 2017.
- Svrluga, Susan (June 19, 2017). "Otto Warmbier dies days after release from North Korean detainment". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2017.(subscription required)
- Lockie, Alex (June 19, 2017). "Trump responds to 'tragic' death of Otto Warmbier, saying North Korea is a 'brutal regime' and 'we'll be able to handle it'". Business Insider. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
- Grinberg, Emanuella (June 20, 2017). "Otto Warmbier's family declines autopsy". CNN. Retrieved June 21, 2017.
- Fox, Maggie (June 20, 2017). "What killed Otto Warmbier?". NBC News. Retrieved June 21, 2017.
- "The tour company that took Otto Warmbier to North Korea halts trips for Americans", ABC News, June 20, 2017
- "Otto Warmbier Was ‘Brutalized and Terrorized’ in North Korea, Father Says", The New York Times, June 15, 2017.
- "Funeral Held for Otto Warmbier, Former North Korean Prisoner, at Ohio Alma Mater", NBC News, June 22, 2017