“kind, generous and promising” – These are the words that college classmates used to describe 22-year-old Otto Warmbier who died six days after returning from serving 17 months of his prison sentence in North Korea for stealing a propaganda poster.
What started off as a tour of North Korea turned into tragedy when Otto was arrested for stealing a propaganda poster from his hotel room. He had planned to study in China during his third year at college and booked a five-day tour to North Korea. However, Otto was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport and accused of performing a “hostile act”. He was then held by the North Korean authorities and in a trial in March 2016, he admitted to taking the poster and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. After the verdict was made, Mr Warmbier was seen sobbing and saying: “I have made the worst mistake of my life.”
After repeated efforts to bring Otto home, North Korea freed him for “humanitarian reasons” in June 2017. However, by the time he came to American soil, it emerged that he had been in a coma for nearly a year and suffered from extensive brain damage, leaving him in a vegetative state. Unable to talk, see, or react to verbal commands, Otto was admitted to the University of Cincinnati Medical Centre, where he died later on Monday afternoon.
Speaking of their anguish, Otto’s parents released a statement:
“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 2:20 pm.”
“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.”
Korean officials blamed a severe form of food poisoning for Otto’s condition, however, his family have blamed North Korea for their “awful mistreatment” of their son. Many US officials have expressed their outrage – with Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Cincinnati saying North Korea should be “universally condemned for its abhorrent behaviour”. US President, Donald Trump, also expressed his dismay of the situation and vowed to “prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency”.