THE LAND OF NO RETURN
A student’s trip to North Korea has become every family’s nightmare, writes Sarah Blake
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.
American student Otto Warmbier being escorted to the Supreme Court in Pyongyang in 2016; and (far right) North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.