THE LAND OF NO RE­TURN

A stu­dent’s trip to North Korea has be­come ev­ery fam­ily’s night­mare, writes Sarah Blake

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - WORLD -

WITH its prom­ise of “bud­get travel to des­ti­na­tions your mother would rather you stayed away from”, Young Pi­o­neer Tours of­fered ev­ery­thing an ad­ven­tur­ous 21-yearold stu­dent could want from a col­lege break.

But those words proved heart­break­ingly pre­scient for Otto Warm­bier, who was handed back to his Ohio fam­ily last week in a coma, suf­fer­ing se­vere brain dam­age, 15 months af­ter vis­it­ing North Korea on a short trip with the Chi­nese travel com­pany.

Ac­cused by the her­mit state of try­ing to steal a pro­pa­ganda poster from his ho­tel, Warm­bier was sen­tenced to 15 years hard labour in a show trial that his fam­ily la­belled an ab­duc­tion and the US Gov­ern­ment de­cried as po­lit­i­cal pay­back for its ramp­ing up of nu­clear sanc­tions against tin pot dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un.

Un­til last Tues­day, the last sight­ing the world had of Warm­bier was as he starred in a grim and dev­as­tat­ing Py­ongyang court video, sob­bing as he begged for for­give­ness.

“I un­der­stand the sever­ity of my crime, and I have no idea what sort of penalty I may face,” he said in what was widely seen as a co­erced con­fes­sion. “I en­tirely beg you and the gov­ern­ment of the DPR Korea for your for­give­ness. Please, I’ve made the worst mis­take of my life, but please, act to save me. Please. Think of my fam­ily.”

Warm­bier’s jail­ing swung into mo­tion fran­tic back chan­nel ne­go­ti­a­tions with Kim Jong-un’s regime, in­volv­ing a roll­call of for­mer di­plo­mats and later, the newly-in­stalled Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller- son. His fam­ily said they were ad­vised by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion to not speak pub­licly about the fraught sit­u­a­tion, but they con­tin­ued to try to call at­ten­tion to the plight of their son.

The ne­go­ti­a­tions may also have in­volved con­tro­ver­sial for­mer US bas­ket­baller Den­nis Rodman, a friend of Kim’s and reg­u­lar vis­i­tor to North Korea, who ar­rived there the same day last week that Warm­bier was air­lifted out.

Is­sac Stone Fish, a se­nior fel­low at the Asia So­ci­ety’s Cen­tre on US-China Re­la­tions, said “the tim­ing, get­ting re­leased on Tues­day, the same time that Den­nis Rodman ar­rived in Py­ongyang, seems too strange to be a co­in­ci­dence”. The State Depart­ment and Rodman deny there was a con­nec­tion.

“Them com­ing and go­ing at the ex­act same time; it could be that North Korea wanted to pave the way for a smoother meet­ing with Rodman, whom it’s pos­si­ble to as­sume bears a mes­sage from Trump or the US gov­ern­ment about talks be­tween the two na­tions,” Mr Stone Fish told CBS.

On his sur­prise ar­rival back

in the US last week, Warm­bier pre­sented with “ex­ten­sive loss of brain tis­sue” that left him in a “state of un­re­spon­sive wake­ful­ness”, ac­cord­ing to his doc­tors at the Univer­sity of Cincin­nati Med­i­cal Cen­tre.

“He has spon­ta­neous eye open­ing and blink­ing, how­ever he shows no signs of un­der­stand­ing lan­guage or re­spond­ing to ver­bal com­mands or aware­ness of his sur­round­ings,” Dr Daniel Kan­ter said in a press con­fer­ence.

“He has not spo­ken and not en­gaged in any pur­pose­ful move­ments or be­hav­iours.”

It’s un­clear what made Warm­bier so sick. Py­ongyang claims it was a com­bi­na­tion of a sleep­ing pill and bot­u­lism — a po­ten­tially fa­tal bac­te­rial poi­son­ing of­ten caused by con­tam­i­nated soil and water.

But this is dis­puted by his new doc­tors, who say he shows no symp­toms of bot­u­lism poi­son­ing.

Warm­bier’s fam­ily, who have never stopped pres­sur­ing for his re­lease and have been at his bed­side since his re­turn, have no doubt about what caused their 22-year-old son’s symp­toms.

His fa­ther Fred spoke of the fam­ily’s “bit­ter­sweet feel­ing”, a com­bi­na­tion of “re­lief that Otto is now home in the arms of those who love him and anger that he was so bru­tally treated for so long”.

“We went for 15 months with­out a word from or about Otto. It was only a week ago that we were in­formed that the North Korean gov­ern­ment now claims he was in a coma for al­most all of that time,” he said.

“Even if you be­lieve their ex­pla­na­tion of bot­u­lism and a sleep­ing pill caus­ing the coma, and we don’t, there is no ex­cuse for any civilised na­tion to have kept his con­di­tion se­cret and de­nied him top notch care for so long.”

The Warm­biers be­lieve Otto, whom the North Kore­ans la­belled a spy, was “ter­rorised and bru­talised” in their jails. If it is true the young man was tor­tured, it would be a sig­nif­i­cant change to how US pris­on­ers are treated by the rogue state.

“Of the roughly 15 Amer­i­cans who have been known to have been de­tained in North Korea since 2009, most of them came out rela- tively un­scathed,” Mr Stone Fish said. “I think they suf­fered in prison in a psy­cho­log­i­cal sense, but there are al­most no other in­stances of this phys­i­cal tor­ture, so it’s un­clear whether or not North Korea de­cided to change it’s pol­icy on im­pris­oned Amer­i­cans and did ac­tu­ally tor­ture Otto, or whether he did fall prey to this ill­ness and is in this coma and whether the North Kore­ans just didn’t know what to do about it.”

Ei­ther way, it’s a tragedy for a young man who just hours be­fore his ar­rest in Jan­uary 2016 was filmed with his fel­low tourist play­ing in snow with lo­cal chil­dren.

Pic­ture: AP

Amer­i­can stu­dent Otto Warm­bier be­ing es­corted to the Supreme Court in Py­ongyang in 2016; and (far right) North Korean dic­ta­tor Kim Jong-un.

Fred Warm­bier.

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