American Jailed In North Korea Dies After Returning To The US In A Coma

Filed Under: Travel

And a very sad story just got even sadder.

Last March I posted about a 21 year old University of Virginia student who was being detained in North Korea. He had traveled to North Korea over New Years, and was accused of trying to steal a North Korean banner from the hotel he was staying at.

North Korea accused him of committing a “hostile act” on behalf of a church, a secretive university organization, and the CIA. Within a couple of weeks he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea, as he “confessed to the serious offense against the DPRK he had committed, pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward it, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”

We hadn’t heard much about this situation for a while, until last week, when we found out that after more than 17 months in North Korean captivity he was finally returning home, though in a coma. North Korea told US officials that he had been in a coma since March 2016, after contracting botulism from taking a sleeping pill.

Otto Warmbier returned to the US last Tuesday, though just now his family has released a statement sharing the sad news that he has passed away, per The Washington Post:

It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home.  Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20pm.

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. But 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.

We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.

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.

We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers.   We are at peace and at home too.

Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family

Just terrible. My thoughts are with Otto’s family and friends.

  1. This is a reminder for all of those who think that visiting North Korea is just another “unique” trip that can be boasted about on your return. It is not. And if you think this couldn’t or wouldn’t happen to you, you’re wrong.

  2. And @Lucky – the doctors in the USA suggested that there was no evidence of botulism. It looks, instead, like he was tortured until he fell into a coma.

  3. This is awful. Best wishes to the family who has suffered for several years just to see their son/brother pass in this way.

    When will the rest of the world decide to stand up to the hideous regime that represses and inflicts human rights offenses against its own people? If Otto, an outsider, suffered this way at their hands how many countless others are mistreated and killed?

    @james – I agree completely. Any casual traveler should steer very clear of North Korea.

  4. Well, it goes to all tourists and visitors. Respect the local laws and customs.

    Just because you can steal a poster in your country or in another country you’ve visited before without much reprimanded, doesn’t mean all country have to bend their laws following your habit of stealing.

    Offcourse, if you have an inclination to feel special about yourself (commonly known as ‘snowflake’), don’t go someplace where nobody shares that feeling.

  5. No sympathy for this white privileged snowflake who thought it would be fun to visit and financially support an authoritarian dictatorship and then had the great idea that stealing their property would be cool. While it’s sad that he was tortured and died, this is a situation that was totally avoidable on his part and it’s also sad that we had to waste taxpayer dollars and whatever negotiating leverage it took to get this child home.

  6. This is just one case of human rights abuse in North Korea, there are many that go unreported. This is not exclusive to North Korea, this happens in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others. Please don’t give your money to these people, Ben.

  7. @ James (above – we’re different James’) – the problem is that there is no local law in North Korea. You can’t obey what isn’t transparent.

    And in case you didn’t know, torture is illegal under the Geneva Convention (yes, I know Republican administrations in the U.S. ignore that, but if we’re talking of respecting the law…).

    And the term “snowflake” is from the novel “Fight Club” – I suggest you read it. It has nothing to do with feeling special about yourself.

  8. What happened in the US hospital? Just sounds so odd to me how he was in a coma for roughly a year in DPRK and then suddenly pass away within 1 week of being in a US hospital.
    Regardless, I feel bad for his friends & family. 🙁

  9. @james the snowflake. How do you know there is no local laws in North Korea? Its a sovereign country. Just because you don’t agree with what is written doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    And snowflake is a slang, tough popularized by a fictional guy who sell soap from human fat.

  10. @Kim Jong, angry much? Yes, some people don’t really know what a dictator’s regime is capable of. I grew up in Cuba, so I know better not to even try North Korea. Unfortunately he didn’t know any better. You seem to be smart enough to know what a repressive regime can do, so I’m surprised you’re assuming it is a fact that person in the video is really him, but that’s besides the point. The only appropriate response to this news is that nobody deserves to be tortured or killed for making the mistake of going into North Korea. Calling a person who you don’t even know a while privileged snowflake isn’t productive to the discussion either, IMO.

  11. While i feel sorry for him and angry at the same time at the NKR government for being too harsh on a stealing offence, the situation was totally avoidable. When you’re in someone’s house, you need to obey their rules even though those rules are unreasonable, or just don’t come to that house at all. It’s common sense.
    If he’d been arrested and tortured for organizing an uprising there, i would have supported him entirely. Stealing a propaganda banner? Really? What can possibly be the reason for doing that?

  12. @ the other James.

    “How do you know there is no local laws in North Korea? Its a sovereign country. Just because you don’t agree with what is written doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

    Do some reading, James. The rule of written law, which you so admire, is non existent in North Korea.

    “And snowflake is a slang, tough popularized by a fictional guy who sell soap from human fat.”

    Um, no it’s not. It’s from “Fight Club”, adopted (incorrectly) by right wingers to attack…um…anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Thanks for making the point so well, though.

  13. @ Suzino. Can you provide me with the North Korean “rules” that suggest stealing a poster may lead to a 15 year jail sentence? Or a coma?

    This situation could have been avoided by the North Korean government. They alone are responsible for this man’s death.

  14. @James: So you think every place must have a sign saying “Do not steal! Stealing is illegal” ???

    How about just being a normal tourist and not steal anything? When you don’t see/ know/ understand the rules, don’t do something stupid. Simple as that.

  15. if he went there as a spy, doing the dirty work for our country, my condolences and may he rest in peace.
    but if he went there as a kooky lib, commie sympathizer, then i am shedding no tear because he has no one to blame but himself.
    i wish it was the formal.

  16. I can’t believe doctors are ruling out torture. Not only was he giving a confession under severe duress, he was seen actively hurting when he was taken from his trial.

    Then it was found he had nerve damage. This could suggest electrical torture – maximum suffering, minimum traces of damage.

    I wonder if the doctors are politicizing this by claiming he wasn’t tortured. Young men like him don’t just fall into a coma, and the family claims he had been brutalized.

    I’d like to remind everyone the former President gagged the family and told them not to speak about it. While doing absolutely nothing. While their son was being tortured to death.

    We need to put an end to the human suffering in North Korea, and we’ll have to do it because it is our god damned duty as civilized humans. I know liberals will unfortunately use this as an occasion to defend torture camps because god forbid we stand behind our President.

    My thoughts and prayers are with the Warmbier family.

  17. James, if you don’t know that stealing is wrong than you shouldn’t be traveling to another country. Admittinglly, the punishment far outweighs the crime but if he did it, one would suspect white privilege played a part. Nonetheless, a sad story and I hope seeing him have his family some comfort.

  18. @ Suzino – I am simply suggesting that the implication that there is some form of justice in North Korea is misguided. Anyone can break a rule if it’s not written down. We don’t even know whether the man “stole” it – did you watch the “trial” and his statement? Regardless, no one should go to jail for 15 years for stealing a poster.

    @ William Y – the American doctors are not ruling out torture.

  19. @james the snowflake.

    Thank you for being a funny snowflake. I hope your idea of stealing is not a crime shared others. Lol

    What’s next? Gonna start screaming “his name is robert paulson!” ???

  20. William, I hope you’re in the military too (or plan to be front line) because you’re so adminant about going to war with this country when their are thousands of other cases of mistreatment and death (most here in the US). You definitely have a right to your opinion, I just hope they are not computer words with no action.

  21. I read that there is no sign of strangulation on him (which is still detectable a year later) so that can’t be it. It may be waterboarding that caused him to go into coma? The grainy video of him “stealing” a poster in my mind isn’t exactly 100% proof that’s him… but in either case, the moral of the story is stay far away from North Korea. Why he went there in the first place is beyond me. Irregardless of someone telling you that you will be ok if you don’t do anything stupid, there is no guarantee that N. Korean government won’t make up stuff to entrap you. Even if he did steal the poster, 15 years of hard labor is way too harsh. Next time your kids tell you they want to visit N Korea, make sure you show them the articles on Warmbier.

  22. Hahahahaha….

    “Regardless, no one should go to jail for 15 years for stealing a poster.”

    I don’t agree with the law! I don’t need to respect other nations value! What I said is always right!


  23. Will the Trump administration take action against NK for this? They killed a US citizen, obviously tortured him. I’m so sad and heartbroken by this.

  24. Whoever has sympathy to North Korea is not qualified as human being…. Norh Korea, no doubt is the world’s single most evil country. Compare to North Korea, Iran and Cuba are like heaven…
    It is such a shame that North Korea being so crude and bloody —- or that’s just how their leader is…. heartless and disgusting…
    North Korea government MUST DIE! MUST DIE! MUST DIE! The very existence of North Korea is bad for the world and North Korean people!
    Best thoughts go to family of Otto..,

  25. @James, @Suzino,
    I am amazed that you both take the DPRK version of this without question. That shows an incredible naivety about the nature of the nation and regime there.

    I have been to the DPRK and to the hotel where this supposedly happened. It is almost inconceivable that anyone would be crazy enough to try and tear down a poster there, you are monitored closely and at nearly all times. The “video” provided was grainy and could have been anyone. Moreover, one of the very, very few things you can buy in North Korea and legally take out are propaganda posters, from the Foreign Languages Publishing House, which virtually all foreign visitors are taken to, so it would be unnecessary steal one off the wall of the hotel. This whole story sounds unlikely, and very much like the usual propaganda from there.

    If he did try to take a poster he was very foolish, but it’s huge ethical stretch to say that deserves what in effect is a death sentence (no one survives 15 years’ hard labor there).

    I do agree with the point a lot of commenters have made: a trip to North Korea is to be taken seriously, and Americans especially need to remember it is not a safe travel destination in the political sense.

  26. @Joey,

    It’s not all that strange, he was probably released so suddenly on “compassionate” grounds because the N Korean authorities realized he was dying and didn’t want him to die there.

  27. It’s probably the DPRK posting many of these inflammatory comments. 🙂

    I feel bad for the family who have their whole lives to regret one bad decision by their son – my sympathies to them.

    Honestly, I suspect an attempt at suicide by asphyxiation. I would be amazed if the DPRK was stupid enough to torture a political bargaining chit.

  28. Am I the only one who seems the understand the family statement as them “letting him go” by the means of cutting off life support?

  29. What was this young man’s crime? He didn’t arm himself strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism?!?

  30. This horrible event should end any curiosity or desire to visit North Korea on the part of Americans. I feel heart broken for his family – their pain must be unbearable.

  31. @Kerry. If you can question the north korean version, why not also question the american version? There’s always two side of the same coin.

    You need special arrangement to enter north korea. Surely you understand its not a simple picnic. You know the risk beforehand. It is not a force majeur or by chance.

    As regards to ethic, what may be ethical to some people may not be ethical to others. Some people consider hard labor is against human rights. Some people also consider guantanamo bay detention camp is against human rights.

  32. I agree with the others in that while this is a terrible situation and while the consequences were much harsher than necessary, he equally should have asked before taking any signs or photos in such a tightly controlled society. He was on tighter watch due to his affiliation with religious groups back in the USA. There is CCTV footage of him trying to unscrew one of the public signs in the hotel hallway. As others have said, when in another country one is to respect the local laws and are still subject to the law.

  33. I came here to be disappointed by some of the horrible commenters that invariably crawl out when stories like this are posted, and some of the horrible commenters did not disappoint in that regard. I was just as disappointed by some of the horrible commenters as I was expecting to be. 🙂

    This is a tragic end to a tragic story, and my thoughts are with his family and friends. Nobody deserves what happened to this guy. Nobody.

  34. I guess Rodman is extremely lucky to escape unscathed every time he visits N Korea for a party with Kim!

  35. I never comment, but the remarks made by “Kim Jong Uno’s Pizza” are completely inappropriate. Keep chewing on your false “white-privilege” narrative, we know you’re here to incite and make ridiculous claims.

  36. Glad that America’s young remain curious. I am not certain this was a wise trip, but I am glad that, in an era of retrenchment, our young still have risk takers amongst them.

    On balance, Warmbier did the intrepid proud.

    Wahoowa, wahoowa, hey hey Virigni-a. Hey, Hey UVA.

  37. @Trolling James…just curious do you believe North Korea’s claim that he had connections to the CIA…I mean he wasn’t charged with theft, he was charged with crimes against the state. Clearly North Korea was so harsh on him because it gave them leverage. By the way, even though he was stupid it is pretty messed up to say he deserves what he got. Personally, I think it’s even messed up to troll about his death. I am pretty sure everyone does something wrong at some point in their life, Anyways…good article I was reading that said North Korea basically released him now because they didn’t want him to die on North Korean soil. Makes sense to me.

  38. So what..?.. start by playing societie’s rules … another Y-Gen tyrd we don’t have to worry about, no sympathy here , nothing to see – move on

  39. As Charles mentioned, Otto Wambier wasn’t charged with theft. According to various sources, he was charged with “perpetrating a hostile act against the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. Further, a few minutes with Google will show that North Korea does have a written legal system. Any traveller in a foreign Country needs to do appropriate research and abide by the laws of that Country no matter how harsh or unjust they may seem, especially to people from Western nations.

    My condolences to his family and friends.

  40. @n: Maybe before you speak about Trump you should read what his parents said about Obama administration and how they didn’t do anything to help their son. They basically asked them to lay low since it was important to not upset the North Koreans. Exactly how they bent to the Cubans and others. Trump at least got their son back.

  41. Why does everyone believe NK’s story about the poster? That easily could have been made up. In terms of the video they showed, they could have simply told him “tear this down or we will kill you.”

    The fact is NK holds Americans for ransom to serve its political interests. Period. Most people are lucky and aren’t picked up, though some unfortunately are. It is tragic that people tempt fate and go there, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to die.

    This is a place that routinely tortures and murders people. Yet when was the last mass march to protest NK? Hundreds of thousands routinely protest Trump, yet he isn’t 1/1000th the villain that Kim Jong Un is. I am no fan of Trumps either, but the lack of perspective about the evil in NK vs anything in the west is astounding.

  42. Whenever I travel to countries where the law can be “customized” at will, I put extra care in not making anyone aware of my presence. When I go to Saudi Arabia (though it’s not in the US list of dangerous dictatorships, reality tells otherwise), I do my business and then get back to the safe haven of the hotel. And I go there only for business. Now, if you go to a country where you have no diplomatic personnel to assist you, and where there’s nothing at all to see, you are taking a big risk. And no, even with all the bad things that take place in such land, a country which is on the other side of the world doesn’t have any right to interfere with korean internal affairs. One dead tourist is no good reason to do so either. Otherwise, if being a dictatorship is a good enough casus belli, then someone would have to start from his closest allies.

  43. While I agree that he is partly to blame for this as he was pretty much asking for it the way the North Korean Government handled this is disgusting and to harsh though I think the underlying message here is that whoever you are however much you travel NEVER EVER GO TO NORTH KOREA

  44. @alan. It seems that stealing a propaganda material is translated into perpetrating a hostile act against the country. We can have millions of law professors to argue definition of law until the end of the day. Still, in any law, STEALING (purposedly taking something that is not belong to you with the intention of owning or transfer ownership) cannot be justified as legal. And this not a poverty stealing of hunger….

  45. To all the people who still think its somehow appropriate to mock this kid and his poor decisions you are pathetic. No way does someone ever suspect that taking a poster off the wall will result in a death sentence. My issue isnt the prison sentence although it was a one hour trial…. Its the fact they murdered a 22 year old kid over it. Seems very likely they beat him into a coma or something which is why they denied all third parties contact with him and didnt even divulge his medical issues until here was near death. Why people feel the need to attack this kid or worry about “tax dollars” is beyond me but only a total loser would focus on the kid stealing a poster vs how north Korea handled this.

  46. Pafunco, Trump didn’t do shit. The dictat of North Korea sent him back as a message. Stop stucking trump’s arse.

  47. @bill. Get your fact straight, think calmly. Nothing gained by being emotional.
    1. The kid purposedly visit a country not by common means as tourist (and the said country didn’t have a good diplomatic relations with his home country);
    2. The kid steal something;
    3. He was never sentenced to death;
    4. He was ultimately released;
    5. He died in US soil.

    If you felt an injustice due to torture to US citizen or anger as to why US government didn’t help him, please see number 1.

  48. You people who think Warmbier actually “stole” something are dupes. That’s all I can say.

    North Korea is a pitiful country run by a fat criminal toad of a leader. Some day the responsible countries of the world need to put an end to that murderous regime.

  49. I’m pretty sure he DID attempt to steal the poster. I’m not saying NK is beyond making something up, I just think that if they WERE to make something up, they would come up with something slightly more justified. I can’t imagine that he managed to travel to NK without at least a couple dozen people telling him it’s a bad idea, and at least a few of them warning him not to do anything stupid while he was there. But kids will be kids, and in America, the rules are made to be broken, and having that trinket will give him literally MINUTES worth of opportunities for future gloating amongst his equally moronic friends, so clearly it’s worth the risk. I’m not saying this is right, I’m just saying that people can control their own actions a lot easier than you can control the actions of North Korea. Hopefully others will learn from this tragic experience. At least American kids seem to have quit tagging up turf in Singapore, so there’s some hope someone might pay attention.

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