Ad­ven­ture in North Korea now a hor­ror un­ex­plain­able

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION & WORLD - By Dan Sewell

WY­OMING, OHIO >> Over and over, Otto Warm­bier apol­o­gized and begged — at first calmly, then chok­ing up and fi­nally in tears — to be re­united with his fam­ily.

North Korean of­fi­cials seated at long ta­bles watched im­pas­sively, with cam­eras rolling and jour­nal­ists tak­ing notes, as the ad­ven­ture­some, ac­com­plished 21-year-old col­lege stu­dent from sub­ur­ban Cincin­nati talked an­i­mat­edly about the “se­vere crime” that had put him there: try­ing to take a pro­pa­ganda ban­ner for some­one back home, sup­pos­edly in re­turn for a used car and to im­press a semi-se­cret so­ci­ety he wanted to join, and all un­der the sup­posed di­rec­tion of the U.S. gov­ern­ment.

“I have made the worst mis­take of my life!” he ex­claimed as his for­mally staged Feb. 29, 2016, “con­fes­sion” to anti-state ac­tiv­i­ties ended in Py­ongyang.

More than 15 months later, he has fi­nally been re­united with his par­ents and two younger sib­lings.

Whether he is even aware of that is un­cer­tain.

“His neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tion can be best de­scribed as a state of un­re­spon­sive wake­ful­ness,” said Dr. Daniel Kan­ter, di­rec­tor of neu­r­o­crit­i­cal care for the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati Health sys­tem. Doc­tors say he has suf­fered “se­vere neu­ro­log­i­cal in­jury,” with ex­ten­sive loss of brain tis­sue and “pro­found weak­ness and con­trac­tion” of his mus­cles, arms and legs. His eyes open and blink, but with­out signs of un­der­stand­ing ver­bal com­mands or his sur­round­ings.

Warm­bier, now 22, re­mains hos­pi­tal­ized at the Uni­ver­sity of Cincin­nati Med­i­cal Cen­ter im­me­di­ately af­ter his ar­rival late Tues­day aboard a mede­vac flight fol­low­ing North Korea’s de­ci­sion to re­lease him for what it called hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons — and un­der strong pres­sure af­ter the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion learned of his con­di­tion in a special U.S. en­voy’s June 6 meet­ing in New York with North Korea’s am­bas­sador to the United Na­tions.

His par­ents, Fred and Cindy Warm­bier, were told he had been in a coma since shortly af­ter be­ing sen­tenced March 16, 2016, to 15 years of prison with hard la­bor.

If life had gone as planned, to­day he would be in his first month as a new grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia.

He had planned to study abroad in his third year of col­lege in China and heard about Chi­nese travel com­pa­nies of­fer­ing trips to North Korea. His par­ents were OK with it.

“Otto’s a young, thrill- seek­ing, great kid who was go­ing to be in that part of the world for a col­lege ex­pe­ri­ence,” Fred Warm­bier ex­plained.

Young Pi­o­neer Tours de­scribed it­self as pro­vid­ing “bud­get tours to des­ti­na­tions your mother would rather you stayed away from.” They also in­cluded Iran, Iraq and former Soviet coun­tries.

Otto Warm­bier booked a five-day tour for late De­cem­ber 2015 and was leav­ing on Jan. 2, 2016, to re­turn to China when he was de­tained.

The U.S. State Depart­ment warns against travel to North Korea. While nearly all Amer­i­cans who have been there have left with­out in­ci­dent, vis­i­tors can be sud­denly seized and face lengthy in­car­cer­a­tion for what might seem to them to be mi­nor in­frac­tions. A state-run news agency re­leased a short, grainy video with a shad­owy, un­rec­og­niz­able fig­ure that pur­ported to show Warm­bier tak­ing the ban­ner down from the wall of his ho­tel.

There have been crit­ics at home of Amer­i­cans who ven­ture into the un­friendly coun­try, leav­ing them­selves open to be­com­ing pawns. Ohioan Jef­frey Fowle was de­tained in 2014 when he in­ten­tion­ally left a Bible in a night­club. Fowle was freed af­ter six months; he said he was kept iso­lated most of the time but not phys­i­cally abused. He and oth­ers freed from North Korea have said they were coached and co­erced into giv­ing a con­fes­sion there.

A Bri­tish mem­ber of the Young Pi­o­neer tour group who was Warm­bier’s Py­ongyang ho­tel room­mate,

Danny Gratton, told The Wash­ing­ton Post last week that he never heard or saw any hint that Warm­bier planned or did any­thing wrong. He called him ma­ture and very po­lite.

Warm­bier was abruptly pulled out of the air­port se­cu­rity line, Gratton said. He didn’t re­sist or seem scared, he re­called, and gave Gratton a half-smile as he was led away.

“He was just a young lad who wanted a bit of ad­ven­ture,” Gratton told The Post. “Ev­ery once in a while they sin­gle out some­one to make a point, and this was just Otto’s turn. It’s so sick and warped and un­nec­es­sary and evil.”

Warm­bier’s father has ac­cused the tour com­pany of help­ing lure Amer­i­cans to North Korea. The com­pany has claimed Warm­bier was the first to be ar­rested of the 7,000 peo­ple it had taken to North Korea.

What hap­pened to Otto Warm­bier af­ter his sen­tenc­ing might never be known out­side the reclu­sive coun­try.

His par­ents dis­count the North Korean claim that he con­tracted bot­u­lism, caused by a rare toxin, and then fell into coma af­ter tak­ing a sleep­ing pill. His doc­tors in Cincin­nati found no ev­i­dence of bot­u­lism, but also said there were no signs of frac­tures to in­di­cate he was beaten into his present state. His con­di­tion is con­sis­tent with car­diopul­monary ar­rest from a loss of oxy­gen to the brain, they said.

U.S. doc­tors said they re­ceived some North Korean med­i­cal records but can’t make con­clu­sions about the cause or the care he re­ceived.


Amer­i­can stu­dent Otto Warm­bier, shown speak­ing as he is pre­sented to re­porters in Py­ongyang, North Korea, is with his Ohio fam­ily again more than 15 months af­ter his staged con­fes­sion. But whether he is even aware of that is un­cer­tain.

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