Otto Warmbier, the young American who was detained in North Korea for 17 months, died on Monday at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center surrounded by his family. He was 22 years old.
Warmbier was held as a political prisoner in North Korea after the country’s authoritarian regime convicted him of “crimes against the state” for tearing down a political propaganda poster while on a school trip to the country. Shortly after his trial in March of 2016, Warmbier fell into a coma and remained in a largely non-responsive state for over a year until he was released late last week and medically evacuated to the United States.
North Korean officials reported that Warmbier fell into the coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill, a theory that made medical experts skeptical. Upon his return, a subsequent medical examination showed “extensive” brain damage.
In a statement, Warmbier’s family says their son was “at peace” in his final moments.
Before his release, the last time Warmbier was seen in public was during his strange, theatrical trial for “crimes against the state.” Warmbier visited the reclusive, totalitarian nation as part of a “New Years Party Tour” organized by the Chinese-based company Young Pioneer Tours. During his “trial,” Warmbier read from a prepared statement in which he confessed to walking around his hotel’s second floor alone trying to steal a political poster. North Korean officials claimed Warmbier was “arrested while perpetrating a hostile act against [North Korea] after entering it under the guise of tourist for the purpose of bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity at the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” Clad in an all-white suit, Warmbier was forced to make a strange plea on the stand, alleging that his family in the U.S. might be in danger:
“After this press conference my family will come to know about my current situation. I am very worried that they can be harmed. I was manipulated by the United States administration. I am worried that they were threatened or harmed by the government. I beg for any kind of public protection for my family. One final time, I beg for forgiveness.”
Bill Richardson, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, told USA Today in January of 2016 that the North Koreans usually release hostages when it “feels that the hostage is of no more use, they’ve milked it.” But after 17 months, Warmbier was only freed after his suspicious medical condition had become dire. He was flown home to Cincinnati, where he then passed away on Monday.
Warmbier’s family released the following statement following his death.
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 p.m.
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.
Photos via Getty Images / Bill Pugliano
Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family