The tragic death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier yesterday, 17 months after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea for stealing a propaganda sign from the Yanggakdo International Hotel, is a shocking reminder of the sheer brutality of the regime.
Before being released last week in a comatose state, Warmbier’s last public appearance was at his kangaroo court trial in Pyongyang, which is reported to have lasted for under an hour.
The distress which he was under is nothing short of heartbreaking. A high-flying student at the University of Virginia, Warmbier was widely popular and “had never been in trouble in his life”. He had been offered a job once he graduated and had travelled widely, including a summer spent studying at the London School of Economics.
The details of what happened are still unclear and may never be verified. We know that Warmbier was released last week, with North Korean officials claiming he had been in a coma for more than a year after being given a sleeping pill when he contracted botulism from food.
In the US, examinations found no evidence of Warmbier suffering from botulism, with experts saying the most likely cause of his condition was cardiopulmonary arrest. His parents said their son was “brutalized and terrorised” by the regime.
Bill Richardson, the veteran US diplomat who has secured previous hostage releases, simply said: “In no uncertain terms, North Korea must explain the causes of his coma.” Senator John McCain alleged on Twitter that Warmbier, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, had been tortured and murdered.
North Korea did not tell US officials, in private delegations or otherwise, about Warmbier’s condition before his release – meaning his parents had no idea their son had been in a coma for more than a year without receiving proper medical care.
It is not uncommon for US citizens who have been arrested to suffer physical abuse in North Korea. Robert Park, a Christian missionary who arrived in North Korea in 2009, said he was mistreated, while US journalist Laura Ling reported being hit in the head during her captivity.
However, it is very unusual for a citizen to be seriously harmed, and Warmbier’s fate highlights the increasing unpredictability of North Korea under Kim Jong-un. This has already been demonstrated by the country’s relentless missile testing, showing it has little regard for international opinion or law.
Some have pointed to Warmbier’s release, even in his terrible condition, as a success story for diplomacy. No doubt US officials worked hard behind the scenes to ensure Warmbier was able to pass away peacefully with his family.
The focus now turns to the three other Americans detained in North Korea: Kim Dong-chul, a businessman arrested in 2015, and Tony Kim and Kim Hak-Song, both of whom worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the country’s only privately funded university. It is vital that international public opinion and diplomatic efforts push for their safe release.
Tour firms taking US citizens into the country should also re-examine whether, in doing so, they are endangering the lives of those who are often caught up as pawns in a wider political game. For many years, the regime has used detained US citizens as bargaining chips, and as a means to move the media agenda away from other issues.
Young Pioneer Tours, which arranged Warmbier’s trip to North Korea, has announced it will no longer take US citizens there. Other such companies should take note.
In amongst the trivialisation of North Korea, Warmbier is a reminder of the regime’s true face. He was an individual with a thirst for life, who loved people and wanted to see the world – even North Korea – in a positive way. Instead, he has lost his life, primarily for being an American citizen.