In an extremely sad turn of events, Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was released by North Korea only days ago after being sentenced to hard labor for taking a propaganda poster, has died. He was only 22.
In a statement announcing his death, Otto’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, described their son as “a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds.” They said his countenance had changed from anguished to at peace since arriving home to Ohio, and they lambasted the “torturous mistreatment” he received from the North Koreans.
He never regained consciousness after returning to Ohio on June 13.
Otto was remembered at a funeral on June 22 attended by 2,500 mourners. His father wore an American flag tie.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Otto’s Parents Say He Died Surrounded by Family & at Peace
Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s parents, released an emotional statement on June 19 announcing that he had died surrounded by family. They said that Otto had seemed at peace in his final days.
Here is their statement in full:
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 2:20pm. 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.
Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family
Although Warmbier was comatose since returning from North Korea, it had not been publicly known that his death was imminent. “Disbelief. Couldn’t sit down,” Fred said in a recent news conference before Otto’s death, describing his reaction when the parents learned Otto was in a coma.
“We’ve been brutalized for the last 18 months… misinformation, no information. We are proud of the fact that our family is basically happy, positive people, and we’re going to stay that way,” Fred Warmbier said.
2. Warmbier Was Sentenced to 15 Years of Hard Labor & Paraded on Television by the North Koreans
It was a horrific show trial for a young American student who did nothing more than supposedly take a poster as a souvenir. The North Korean government said Warmbier, who was on a trip with the Young Pioneer Tours company, tore down a propaganda poster at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where he and about 100 other westerners were staying. He was in North Korea with a Chinese tour company that has now stopped offering North Korea tours to Americans. Otto Warmbier was arrested in January 2016 while trying to leave North Korea at the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport.
The North Korean government said the crime was an act “of hostility against the state” and accused him of being affiliated with spies. He was paraded in front of the television cameras by North Korea for propaganda purposes. Few can forget the 2016 images of the anguished, frightened Warmbier in a North Korean kangaroo court.
According to NPR, on camera, in a forced confession, Otto “said he stole the propaganda poster on behalf of a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio, who wanted it ‘as a trophy.’ In exchange, he would receive a used car worth $10,000.”
Warmbier begged for his release and broke into tears, saying the situation was “the worst mistake of my life,” reported NPR.
It’s now known that Otto lapsed into a coma shortly after that television appearance, although it’s not clear why, and even his family did not know his medical condition until recently. It’s also not known what happened to Otto in North Korea after that television appearance, although injuries to his body tell their own tale.
President Donald Trump released a statement offering condolences to Warmbier’s family and condemning the North Korean regime.
Trump wrote that Otto’s death “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.”
3. Otto Warmbier Was Released Just Days Before His Death but Suffered Severe Neurological Injury
The news came suddenly, just days before his death, that North Korea was freeing Warmbier, who is an Ohio native. It wasn’t clear what provoked North Korea to release Warmbier, but the Donald Trump administration had made getting him back a priority. Trump telephoned Warmbier’s parents after the release, Fred Warmbier said.
North Korea has said that the student contracted botulism after the television appearance, but Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, dispute this contention. The cause of death may never be known in the sense that it’s not clear what the North Koreans did to Warmbier to cause his neurological injuries.
In a news conference back home, Otto’s doctors said that he “suffered extensive brain damage and shows no current signs of botulism,” according to CNN. He had not spoken or “engaged in any purposeful movements…He shows no signs of understanding language or responding to verbal commands,” a doctor said, describing his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness” but declining at that time to give a prognosis, CNN reported.
Doctors said that they found “no evidence of trauma after examining all of Warmbier’s bones…scans did not show any acute or healing fractures, including scans of his skull,” according to WCPO. He was well-nourished, the doctors said.
The television station reported that American doctors “received copies of brain MRI images from medical officials in North Korea… The two images on the disc were dated April and July 2016.” As a result, the doctors said they “suspect Warmbier’s injury occurred in the preceding weeks.” but there was no way to verify the notations.
According to Fox News, “doctors said that Warmbier had suffered ‘extensive loss of brain tissue,’ suggesting he had lost blood supply to his brain for a period of time.”
4. Fred Warmbier Lambasted the North Koreans in an Angry Press Conference, Wearing His Son’s Jacket
Fred Warmbier gave an angry and emotional press conference on June 15, in which he wore his son’s jacket from that propaganda appearance and described North Korea as a “pariah” regime. “We’re thrilled that our son is on American soil,” he said then.
“Otto was a young university student who was on a tour with other university students. He’s never been in trouble with his life,” said his heartbroken and angry father. “He fought to stay alive through the worst the North Koreans put him through to return to the family and community he loves.”
Warmbier’s parents did have a chance to see their son again and to bring Warmbier back to Cincinnati and hold him in their arms. “Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told The Washington Post after news of Otto’s release broke. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
When Otto was first freed, his parents released a statement that said in part, “Otto has left North Korea. He is on a Medivac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago. We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korean. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
Fred and Cindy Warmbier had previously spoken out and claimed they were “urged to keep quiet” about Otto Warmbier by the Obama administration, according to Fox News.
“They feel you don’t get involved that way,” Fred said, according to Fox News. “It lets the other side solve problems and make things happen.” In the June 15 press conference, he repeated this contention but said he and his wife decided in the spring that the “time for strategic patience was over.”
“The results speak for themselves,” Fred said, when asked if he felt the previous administration could have done more.
At his funeral, his family displayed items from his travels, including the jacket he wore during the North Korean propaganda video.
You can learn more about Otto’s funeral here:
Items displayed at Warmbier’s funeral. (Getty)[/caption]
You can learn more about Otto’s funeral here.
5. Otto Warmbier Was High School Salutatorian & His Dad Cherishes Memories of Otto Playing Soccer
The young Ohioan was a top student in his high school class who was well-regarded and had big dreams. “Otto was a sweet, loving, kind person,” his father said in the press conference.
Otto Warmbier graduated from Wyoming High School in Ohio in 2013 as class Salutatorian, reported Cincinnati.com.
In high school, Warmbier was an outstanding student and a “great kid,” the newspaper reported, adding that he received a scholarship and was named a student of the year. “He qualified for the dean’s list at the University of Virginia, where he was also an Echols Scholar, an honor awarded to the top 7 percent of incoming first-year students, according to Warmbier’s LinkedIn page. Warmbier also serves as alumni chair for the Theta Chi fraternity at the university,” reported Cincinnati.com.
Warmbier’s father said he clung to that image as propaganda images of his son were disseminated on television by the North Korean regime.
“When I see the picture of Otto going on TV with that confession, that’s not the image I have of my son in my heart,” Fred Warmbier said to Fox News. “The image I have of my son is playing soccer three short years ago in high school.”
He gave CNN another memory: “It hurts my spirit. My vision of Otto is before he left on this trip. We were in the TV room and my easy chair broke and I had to crawl underneath this dirty chair and next thing I know his head is next to mine, and we’re looking at each other and we’re smiling and there’s love.” Fred Warmbier said to CNN. “So when I look at this picture of Otto in handcuffs being forced to do these things, it’s too painful … I’m focused on the future and bringing Otto home.”
You can read more about Fred and Cindy Warmbier here: