We recently published an article explaining how, on June 13, 2017, after 17 months of imprisonment, the DPRK released American student Otto-Frederick Warmbier, whom they had sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment, and who had fallen into a coma. Unfortunately, the story ended up having a sad sequel with unpleasant political consequences, for, on June 19, 2017, a few days after returning home, Otto-Frederick died due to severe brain damage.
For the purpose of analysis, this story is divided into four parts: the very act of the student; his punishment, which many considered disproportionate; the circumstances surrounding his illness and death; the potential political consequences of the accident.
The Vandalized Slogan.
Although western media have frequently reported that the student “vandalized a political poster”, this is not entirely true. On January 1, while on a tourist trip to the DPRK organized by a Chinese travel agency, Warmbier entered a closed office building of the Yangakto Hotel and tried to tear off a large propaganda slogan that read “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il patriotism!” And although he vandalized the poster, he did not carry it away. However, the moment of him pulling the slogan to try to tear it off was captured on CCTV cameras. In addition, the case involved witness testimonies and his own fingerprints on the site of the “crime”.
Some “anti-American” sources add to this the fact that, having failed to take the slogan out, Warmbier proceeded to urinate on it. Nevertheless, the author could not find a valid confirmation of this fact.
According to the people who were with Otto on that tour, he did not discuss such plans with anyone, and when he was detained at the airport the next day before the flight, he looked calm and undaunted. Curiously, when, on arrival in Beijing, he was missed, Otto did not talk about his arrest, but stated that he wanted to go to the hospital as he had a severe headache.
In other words, the very fact of his misconduct has not been the subject of discussion, and the reasoning of a number of anti-North Korean organizations that the regime arrested an innocent person is not grounded.
In general, it was later revealed that the whole tour had been undertaken in an atmosphere of “drunkenness and recklessness”, and the non-Korean escorts not only drank with the visitors under their wardship, but actually encouraged them to break the rules, instead of following the “safety precautions” to be adhered to when staying in a difficult country. All this resulted in several incidents unfolding, of which the one involving Otto turned out to be the most serious. Therefore, in actuality, we do not know whether the young man committed his offense under the influence of the general situation and because he was not warned properly, or before us is a typical “force majeure” circumstance involving a wealthy US lad who, accustomed to living in permissiveness and indulgency in his homeland, thought that everything was allowed in the third world.
North Korean Verdict.
At his trial, Otto described his own act as “the worst mistake of his life.” He cried and apologized, but at the same time pretended to be the victim. Apparently, his family needed money and he had performed this act at the request of a Protestant church that had promised him a used car for a trophy and USD 200,000 to his family if he got into trouble. However, given that his family has a mixed American-Jewish heritage and earns a good income (the father of the young man is head of a metal-finishing company), the author believes that this version was partly consistent with the “ideologically correct line”, and was partly an “Easter egg” for those who knew Otto and partly allowed him to appear not as a thrill seeker but a victim of some wicked pastors.
Some commentators have even speculated that the young man knew what he was doing, and was seeking a way to remain in the DPRK, but the author continues to hold the opinion that this was an attempt to bring a “military trophy” from the exotic country; an act undertaken out of courage and / or underalcohol intoxication.
The DPRK Supreme Court sentenced Otto to fifteen years in prison, with his sentence to be served at a corrective labor colony. A spokesman for the US State Department said that the severe punishment that was levelled against Mr. Warmbier was a response by North Korea to the sanctions that the US had imposed against it for its nuclear activities. However, for the same offense, a citizen of the DPRK would have received the same term, since, from the North Korean point of view, the act of insulting sacred symbols, which include any slogan with the leader’s name, is not regarded merely as vandalism, but sacrilege.
The author has already compared the likely consequences of Mr. Warmbier’s conduct in the DPRK had he decided to commit the same “act of sacrilege” in, say, Saudi Arabia or, more closely to our case, Thailand, bytearing or ruining a portrait of the king. Take, for instance, the case of Oliver Jufer, who, in 2006, spray-paintedfour portraits of the king, only to be saved by a royal pardon. Otherwise, the least that he could have served was a ten-year sentence: (the court first ruled that Olivier Jufer be imprisoned for 20 years, five years for each portrait, but later, taking into account his frank confession, reduced the term by half).
How much would the student have served had he not fallen into a coma? It is the opinion of the author that this would not have been for long. Evidence to this is given by the fate of the rest of the US citizens that have been detained in the DPRK. Some, like Sandra Suh, were immediately deported, while some were sentenced to prison terms and ended up serving a maximum of two years, as was the case with Kenneth Bae, who was detained for clandestine missionary work. The rest were sentenced to even smaller sentences. That is why the author has no particular doubt that without having fallen into a coma, Mr. Warmbier would have spent a very small part of his 15-year term in jail.
Release, coma and death.
From the very beginning, the family of the student began playing an active role in his release, and his mother even met with US Secretary of State John Kerry. However, serious progress only began with the coming of Donald Trump. Information surfaced in some South Korean media outlets that, in actuality, the negotiations for extradition had been conducted for 8 months, during which the North Korean side demanded if not an apology, but at least an official visit of a politician of the level of an ex-president. However, this news only appeared after the fact. What is only known is that after March 2016, even Swedish diplomats (the Swedish embassy represents US interests in the DPRK) no longer had access to him.
It is alleged that Warmbier fell into a coma almost immediately after the sentencing, and this fact was hidden for more than a year. However, as soon as the resonance reached a certain level, on June 12, 2017, US Special Representative for North Korean Affairs Joseph Yun flew to Pyongyang on mission that was crowned with success, and according to the respondents of the author, there was no resistance from the North Korean side. Moreover, they even provided some information on the state of health of the patient.
At first, no particular comments were made regarding the coma. As Secretary Tillerson said on June 16, “We will not comment on the circumstances relating to his condition and on how this could have occurred.” However, doctors immediately diagnosed severe damage to all parts of the brain and an almost irreversible process of the dying of his tissues, so that death was only a matter of time.
When Otto died, his family stated that Pyongyang was to blame for everything: “Unfortunately, the inhuman treatment on the verge of torture suffered by our son at the hands of the North Koreans has left no other possible outcome.” These words were immediately picked up by a whole swarm of anti-North Koreans, who started talking about the fact that the young man could have become a victim not just of torture, but of “savage medical experiments reminiscent of Nazi procedures.” What is true is that none of the previously detained US citizens later complained of particularly cruel treatment even after they had left the country.
What is the specific cause of the death of Mr. Warmbier? Much could have been given by an autopsy, but at the request of the family (apparently for religious reasons) they refused it. The coroner conducted only an external examination of the body and requested medical examinations data from the hospital in Cincinnati, where the student died. According to the North Korean side, only a week before his release, Mr. Warmbier fell ill with botulism and entered a coma after taking a sleeping pill. However, this statement poses several questions. After all, botulism has never been known to cause paralysis to anyone. In addition, judging by the results of two MRI scans that were performed on a patient in the DPRK, brain damage had been noted earlier. We also take into account the fact that the medicines that are dispensed to prisoners in the DPRK are unlikely to be at the European level, including due to the fact that a number of medical equipment are currently under international sanctions.
Physicians from the hospital in Cincinnati found neither signs of botulism nor indications that the student had been subjected to beating. His coma and death, in their opinion, had resulted from brain hypoxia (cardiopulmonary arrest resulting from a loss of oxygen to the brain. There were no signs of malnutrition or other ill-treatment.
Theoretically, there are several versions – from a “previously undetected” ischemic stroke to drug overdose or the exacerbation of a chronic illness (recalling the headache that he had complained about on the day of detention). In the blogosphere, among the versions of the causes of brain hypoxia, clinical death after an unsuccessful suicide attempt was discussed, and among the causes of death is that the relatives themselves disconnected the patient’s body from the life-support apparatus, seeing that there was no more hope. Let us only note that death as a result of the mistakes of doctors and murder by particular cruelty are different articles of the criminal code, and the punishment for them is also different.
The death of the student has caused an unequivocal reaction in the US and the world at large. Speaking at a White House press conference on June 20, US President Donald Trump said that the DPRK authorities were responsible for what happened, and his administration would ensure that incidents of this kind would not occur in the future: “Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination 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. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim. North Korea is a brutal regime, and we’ll be able to handle it.”
Trump called the incident a horrible event and, after the incident, he explained that the probability of him meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been reduced significantly.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pointed out that Pyongyang would certainly answer for what had been done, demanding the immediate release of three US citizens in custody.
Senator John McCain made a general comment and called the incident a murder. He also said that the DPRK should answer for this. However, at the time of writing of the article, no decision had been made on the violent nature of the student’s death, and for decisive actions, the descriptions “murder” and “death as a result of ill-treatment” must be pronounced by a coroner, not a senator.
Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs Edward Royce said that the United States should prohibit its citizens from traveling to North Korea.
On June 20, President of the Republic of Korea Mr. Moon Jae-in also expressed his condolences to the student’s family, and, in an interview with CBS, stated that the entire responsibility for his death lies with Pyongyang, as “Mr. Warmbier was apparently ill-treated”. He condemned the actions of the North Korean regime and called the DPRK “an irrational country,” stressing that the policy of Seoul on North Korea does not differ from the policy of Washington.
Indeed, the idea of increasing pressure on North Korea is not ruled out, and the most likely option is the adoption of an analogue of the Magnitsky Act that will introduce unilateral sanctions against the DPRK as well as a legal ban prohibiting American citizens from visiting the DPRK.
In any case, however, the North Koreans have to answer a set of unpleasant questions. Why was information on the student’s illness not provided in time? Why was the extradition of the student talked about only after Yun flew in? If, after this death, a mechanism of humanitarian contacts, a hotline, and other options for emergency evacuation in crisis situations such as this one are established, the author will be satisfied, and I very much hope that representatives of the DPRK will develop a constructive attitude and improve the amount and quality of medical support they avail to their prisoners.
It is also natural that the history of the deceased student will be used in the information war as much as possible. On the one hand are the enemies of Pyongyang who take even the lack of confirmation of torture to only mean “these were special tortures that left no visible traces.” On the other hand, the author has already heard reports that the young man “was disconnected from the life support apparatus because it is too expensive in the United States”, or was even poisoned exactly at the moment when the President of the Republic of Korea was ready to start an inter-Korean dialogue (actually, he was not planning to do this, but that is another story), if not in general to justify the “War of Jenkins’ ear” that was perpetrated by representatives of the church with which the deceased was connected. However, these conspiracy stories are also not confirmed by hard facts, as are the terrible stories about medical experiments.
Will the death of the student become the match that will light a war? The answer is not as clear. Of course, for the purposes of garnering public opinion, this is yet another milestone in the right direction. However, reactions resembling the US missile strike on Syria in response to a chemical attack by a perpetrator yet to be identified have not been adopted yet. Perhaps the evidence pointing to a tragic accident is too much, and some details are still hidden from the eyes of the analyst.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), leading researcher at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.