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Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier

Otto Frederick Warmbier (December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea in 2016 on a charge of subversion. In June 2017, he was released by North Korea in a vegetative state and died soon afterward.

Warmbier entered North Korea as part of a guided tour group on December 29, 2015. On January 2, 2016, he was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport while awaiting departure from the country. He was accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel, for which he was sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment with hard labor.[4]

Shortly after his sentencing in March 2016, Warmbier suffered a severe neurological injury from an unconfirmed cause and fell into a coma, which lasted over a year.[5] North Korean authorities did not disclose his medical condition until June 2017, when they announced he had fallen into a coma as a result of botulism and a sleeping pill. He was freed later that month, still in a comatose state after 17 months in captivity. He was repatriated to the United States and arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio on June 13, 2017. He was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment.

Warmbier never regained consciousness and died on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States when his parents had requested his feeding tube to be removed.[6] A coroner's report stated that he died from an unknown injury causing lack of oxygen to the brain.[7] Non-invasive internal scans did not find any signs of fractures to his skull.[6]

In 2018, a U.S. federal court found the North Korean government liable for Warmbier's torture and death, in a default judgment in favor of Warmbier's parents after North Korea did not contest the case.[8][9] In 2019, U.S. President Donald Trump caused controversy after saying that he believed the word of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un that Kim was not responsible for Warmbier's death. In response, Warmbier's parents criticized Trump for making excuses for Kim and "his evil regime".[10][11]

Otto Warmbier
Otto Frederick Warmbier

(1994-12-12)December 12, 1994
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
DiedJune 19, 2017(2017-06-19)(aged 22)
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
EducationUniversity of Virginia
CountryNorth Korea
DetainedJanuary 2, 2016
ChargeSubversion (through attempted theft of a propaganda poster)
Sentence15 years' imprisonment
ReleasedJune 12, 2017
Warmbier v. DPRK
CourtDistrict Of Columbia District Court, United States
Full case nameCYNTHIA WARMBIER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF KOREA, Defendant
DecidedDecember 10, 2018 (2018-12-10)
Citation(s)Civil Action No. 18-977 (BAH)
Case opinions
North Korea found liable (by default judgment) for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier. $501 million in monetary damages awarded to the Warmbier family.
Case opinions
Decision byChief Judge Beryl A. Howell

Early life

Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, the eldest of three children of Cynthia ("Cindy", née Garber) and Fred Warmbier. He was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio.[12][13] He attended Wyoming High School, where he was considered popular and studious, and graduated in 2013 as salutatorian.[14][15] He went on to enroll at the University of Virginia, where he was pursuing a double major degree in commerce and economics, and did a foreign exchange at the London School of Economics. His minor was in global sustainability.[14] He was a member of the Theta Chi fraternity.[16] Warmbier's mother is Jewish, and Otto was active in Hillel on his college campus.[17][6] He had an interest in other cultures,[6] and had visited Israel (on a Birthright trip),[17] Europe, Cuba, and Ecuador.[18]

North Korea

Warmbier was scheduled to undertake a study-abroad program in Hong Kong in early 2016, and decided to visit North Korea en route over the New Year period. He booked a tour of North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based budget tour operator whose slogan is "destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from".[16] Warmbier's father Fred said that Young Pioneer advertised the trip as safe for U.S. citizens,[19][20] and that Otto was "curious about their culture... he wanted to meet the people of North Korea."[18]

On December 29, 2015, Warmbier flew via Beijing to North Korea with his tour group for a five-day New Year's tour of the country.[4][6] Ten other U.S. citizens were in the tour group.[21]

The tour group celebrated New Year's Eve by carousing in Pyongyang's Kim Il-sung Square before returning to their accommodations at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where they continued drinking alcohol.[22][23] Early in the morning of New Year's Day, Warmbier allegedly tried to steal a propaganda poster from a staff-only area of the hotel.[24][25] The poster stated (in Korean), "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il's patriotism!" Damaging or stealing such items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the North Korean government.[26][27]


The Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where the alleged attempted theft took place.

The Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where the alleged attempted theft took place.

On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport while awaiting departure from North Korea. Danny Gratton, a British member of Warmbier's tour group, witnessed the arrest.[28] He said:

No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously, 'Well, that's the last we'll see of you.' There's a great irony in those words. That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. Otto didn't resist. He didn't look scared. He sort of half-smiled.[22]

When the group's plane was about to leave the terminal, an official came aboard and announced, "Otto is very sick and has been taken to the hospital."[16] Some media reports indicated that Warmbier spoke by phone to a Young Pioneer tour guide following his arrest,[22][29] but this was denied by a Young Pioneer spokesman who told BBC News that "none of its employees had direct contact with Otto after he was escorted away."[14] The others in his tour group left the country without incident.[21]

North Korea's state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) initially announced that Warmbier had been detained for "a hostile act against the state," without specifying further details.[21] North Korea refused to elaborate on the precise nature of his wrongdoing for six weeks,[16] although a Young Pioneer spokeswoman advised Reuters there had been an "incident" at the Yanggakdo Hotel.[21] In a press conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier, reading from a prepared statement, confessed that he had attempted to steal a propaganda poster from a restricted staff-only area of the second floor[1] of the Yanggakdo Hotel to take back to the United States.[31] It is not known whether the confession was forced, as Warmbier never regained consciousness after his return to the U.S. However, various sources, including Gratton, said that he was clearly under duress.[22] Former prisoners of North Korea have later recanted their confessions after their release, stating they were made under duress.[32][33][34]

Warmbier's confession also stated that he had plotted to steal the poster at the behest of a Methodist church in his hometown and the Z Society, a secret society at the University of Virginia that he wished to join, both of which he said were allied with the Central Intelligence Agency. These claims, which Time magazine called "fanciful" and "implausible,"[16] were disputed by both the church and the Z Society.[31] The New York Times remarked that "the unlikely nature of the details suggested the script had been written by Mr. Warmbier's North Korean interrogators."[35] U.S. negotiator Mickey Bergman later stated that Warmbier's family were advised to maintain silence about his Jewish heritage while he was under arrest, as negotiators believed that publicly repudiating Warmbier's purported affiliation with a Methodist church would antagonize the North Korean regime.[36]

Trial and conviction

On March 16, 2016, a few hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met in New York with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for Warmbier's release,[37][38] Warmbier was tried and convicted in North Korea's Supreme Court. He was charged with subversion under Article 60 of North Korea's Criminal Code. The court held that he had committed a crime "pursuant to the U.S. government's hostile policy toward [North Korea], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist."[39][40] Evidence at his trial, which lasted one hour, included his confession, CCTV footage, fingerprint evidence, and witness testimony.[41][42] A video purporting to be the hotel's security-camera footage of the theft of the propaganda poster was released by KCNA on March 18, 2016. In the brief low-resolution video, time-stamped 1:57 a.m., a figure removes a poster from a corridor wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. The footage released does not display subsequent events.[43][24] Warmbier indicated in his confession that he abandoned the poster after discovering it was too large to carry away.[44][31] A hotel staff member told the court: "When I got off work, there was nothing amiss. But when I returned, I thought someone had deliberately taken the slogan down, so I mobilized security to prevent damage to it and reported it to the authorities."[45]

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.[46] Human Rights Watch called the hearing a kangaroo court[47] and described the sentencing as "outrageous and shocking."[48] U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner stated it was clear that North Korea used arrested American citizens for political purposes despite its claims to the contrary.[49]


Fred and Cindy Warmbier met with numerous Obama administration officials, including then Secretary of State John Kerry, and with the Swedish ambassador, who served as an interlocutor between the U.S. and North Korea.[50] In May 2017, Fred Warmbier said the Obama administration had encouraged them to keep a low profile about their son's situation, but that he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea.[51]

On June 13, 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that North Korea had released Warmbier. Tillerson also announced that the State Department had secured Warmbier's release at the direction of President Donald Trump,[52][53] and the State Department would continue discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.[54][2]

Subsequent media reports revealed that at a meeting in New York on June 6, North Korean officials had advised U.S. State Department Special Representative Joseph Yun that Warmbier had contracted food-borne botulism shortly after his sentencing and had fallen into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. A delegation headed by Yun flew to Pyongyang to oversee Warmbier's repatriation.[26][56][57]

After 17 months in prison, Warmbier, in a comatose state, was medically evacuated to Cincinnati and arrived in the evening of June 13. He was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors tried to determine what caused his coma and if there were signs of recovery.[58][59]

Medical condition

Warmbier's physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center stated that he was in "a state of unresponsive wakefulness," commonly known as persistent vegetative state.[56] He was able to breathe on his own and blink his eyes, but otherwise showed no signs of awareness of his environment, such as understanding language, nor did he initiate any purposeful movements.[60]

Medical records from North Korea showed that Warmbier had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. During his release, the North Koreans provided a disc containing two magnetic resonance imaging brain scans, dated April and July 2016, showing damage to the brain.[61]

According to his medical team, brain scans revealed Warmbier had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain, consistent with a cardiopulmonary event that caused the brain to be deprived of oxygen. Doctors said they did not know what caused the cardiac arrest, but that it could have been triggered by a respiratory arrest, while a neurointensive care specialist at the hospital stated that there was no evidence indicating botulism. They said physicians found no evidence of physical abuse or torture; scans of Warmbier's neck and head were normal outside of the brain injury. They added "We didn’t see any evidence of healing fractures or healed fractures that would have been within that time frame" and that "We believe that for somebody who had been bedridden for more than a year, that his body was in excellent condition, that his skin was in excellent condition".[14][60][62][61][63]

Warmbier's father held a press conference on June 15 but declined to answer a reporter's question as to whether or not the neurological injury was caused by an assault, saying he would let the doctors make that determination. He stated that his family did not believe anything the North Koreans told them.[64] He expressed anger at the North Koreans for his son's condition, saying, "There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret, and denied him top-notch medical care for so long."[60]


After his parents requested his feeding tube be removed, Warmbier died in the hospital at 2:20 p.m. on June 19, 2017, at the age of 22.[6][65] His family issued a statement expressing their sadness, thanking the hospital staff for their actions.[66] President Trump issued a statement regarding Warmbier's death: "There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto's family and friends, and all who loved him." He added: "The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim."[66][67]

North Korean officials said their country was the "biggest victim" from Warmbier's death as a result of a "smear campaign," stating their treatment of him was "humanitarian." A spokesman added:

Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatments and care with all sincerity on humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S., considering that his health got worse.[68]

At the request of Warmbier's family, an autopsy was not performed, and only a postmortem external examination was conducted.[69][70] Doctors speculated that the cause of death could have been a blood clot, pneumonia, sepsis, or kidney failure. Sleeping pills could have caused Warmbier to stop breathing if he had botulism and was paralyzed from it.[71] The University of Cincinnati doctors found no evidence of botulism, but several neurologists said that botulism cannot be ruled out, given the length of time before Warmbier's return to the U.S.[72] GQ journalist Doug Bock Clark suggested that Warmbier may have attempted suicide some time after his sentencing.[6]

A funeral for Warmbier was held on June 22, 2017, at Wyoming High School; more than 2,500 mourners attended.[73] He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio, and students tied ribbons on every tree and pole along the three-mile route taken by the funeral procession from the high school to the cemetery.[74]

Public reactions

Public reactions to Warmbier's death were strong.[70] U.S. senators John McCain and Marco Rubio called it "murder". Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said "Countless innocent men and women have died at the hands of the North Korean criminals, but the singular case of Otto Warmbier touches the American heart like no other."[75] South Korean president Moon Jae-in conveyed his condolences to Warmbier's family, and said "We cannot know for sure that North Korea killed Mr. Warmbier. But I believe it is quite clear that they have a heavy responsibility in the process that led to Mr. Warmbier's death."[76]

Michael Kirby, chairman of the United Nations commission of inquiry on human rights in North Korea, wrote: "A young American's fate becomes a metaphor, a kind of symbol, of a big story about thousands of nameless statistics locked up and oppressed in North Korea. They are voiceless. But Otto Warmbier speaks of their suffering from his grave. He reminds the world of the human rights wrongs in North Korea. He joins the voices of the many witnesses who gave testimony to the UN commission."[77]

The media reported on a wide range of other reactions. Some criticized the Obama administration for alleged inaction in Warmbier's case,[78][79] a claim disputed by Obama spokesman Ned Price.[80] Some found fault with Young Pioneer Tours (the travel agency that organized Warmbier's North Korea trip) for its alleged drinking culture and for understating the risks of travel to North Korea.[23][81] Following Warmbier's death, Young Pioneer announced it would no longer accept American citizens on its tours.[82] It also amended its website to emphasize that North Korea has "what amount to extremely strict lèse-majesté laws."[83]

Some questioned Warmbier's decision to visit North Korea in the first instance.[84] Robert R. King, former U.S. envoy for North Korea human rights issues, remarked that Warmbier had disregarded the U.S. State Department's travel advisory, which "strongly warns" American citizens not to travel to North Korea.[85] Some commentators suggested that Warmbier had been framed by the North Korean regime for removing the propaganda poster,[28] while others concluded that he was guilty of doing so,[77][86] and in some cases criticized Warmbier for violating the law as an American visiting a hostile country.[87][88][89]


U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at Cheonan memorial with North Korean defectors and Fred Warmbier, February 2018

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at Cheonan memorial with North Korean defectors and Fred Warmbier, February 2018

In July 2017, the U.S. government announced that it would ban American tourists from visiting North Korea as of September 1, 2017, with Warmbier's detention given as one of the reasons.[90][91]

In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on September 19, 2017, President Donald Trump mentioned Warmbier while lambasting North Korea as a rogue state.[92] One week later, Trump posted on Twitter that Warmbier was "tortured beyond belief" by North Korea.[93] His post followed a televised interview given by Warmbier's parents, in which they spoke of their son's death and expressed their wish for North Korea to be relisted as a state sponsor of terrorism.[94] They also claimed their son's body showed signs of torture, such as "rearranged" teeth, and disfigured hands and feet.

The following day, responding to the parents' interview, the Ohio coroner who had examined Warmbier denied that there were signs of torture, and said: "They're grieving parents. I can't really make comments on their perceptions."[7] The coroner said that Warmbier had died due to brain damage following an interruption of blood flow. She said his skin condition was excellent, and his muscle volume was reasonably good given the circumstances.[95]

On November 20, 2017, the U.S. Department of State relisted North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.[96] President Trump mentioned Warmbier's case when making this announcement.[97]

In June 2018, Warmbier's parents praised President Trump for his comments about the family and stated that they hoped something positive would come from the first North Korea–United States summit, which was held that month.[98]

In February 2019, at the conclusion of the second North Korea–United States summit, Trump announced that he had discussed Warmbier's treatment with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and said, "He [Kim] tells me he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word." President Trump also argued that it would not have been to Kim's advantage to allow Warmbier to be treated poorly.[99] Following President Trump's comments, Warmbier's parents released a statement, saying: "We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuse or lavish praise can change that."[100] Trump later said his remarks had been "misinterpreted" and added, "Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto's mistreatment and death," without mentioning Kim specifically.[101]

In April 2019, The Washington Post reported previously undisclosed news that at the time of Warmbier's medical evacuation, North Korean officials had presented the U.S. delegation that repatriated him with a bill for US$2 million for his medical treatment while in Pyongyang.[102] President Trump denied that the U.S. government had paid the bill.[103]


In April 2018, Warmbier's parents sued the North Korean government in the United States federal district court in Washington, D.C., accusing North Korea of torture and murder.[104] Although private citizens are not usually able to sue foreign nations and their governments, damages may be paid to the victims of nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism, like North Korea, from a special fund established by the United States Congress.[105]

North Korea did not contest the case in court, although the director of the Pyongyang hospital where Warmbier had been treated issued a press release reaffirming North Korea's denials that Warmbier had been tortured by the regime.[106]

Although the coroner's post-mortem examination had found that Warmbier's teeth were "natural and in good repair", two of Warmbier's private dentists testified that his post-mortem dental x-rays indicated that some of his lower teeth were bent backward when compared to his earlier dental records, consistent with "some sort of impact."[107] A scar on Warmbier's foot, previously described by the coroner as "inexplicable",[108] was held up by some expert witnesses as evidence that Warmbier may have been subjected to torture (such as electric shock) by his North Korean jailers.[109][107][110]

On December 24, 2018 Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell handed down a default judgment[3] ordering North Korea to pay $501 million in damages.[111] A copy of the judgment couriered by the court to North Korea's foreign ministry in Pyongyang was sent back to the court.[112] VOA News remarked that "it is unlikely North Korea will pay the judgment since there is no mechanism to force it to do so",[113] but that the Warmbier family "may nonetheless be able to recoup damages through a Justice Department-administered fund for victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism, and may look to seize other assets held by the country outside of North Korea."[114]

In July 2019, the Warmbier family filed a claim on a North Korean cargo ship that had been seized by the U.S. government in May 2019 for allegedly transporting and selling North Korean coal in violation of international sanctions.[115][116][117]


  • *WARMBIER et al v. DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF KOREA [127] * (District Of Columbia District Court, case 1:18-cv-00977) Memorandum of Opinion in CYNTHIA WARMBIER, et al., Plaintiffs, v. DEMOCRATIC PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF KOREA, Defendant. -- Civil Action No. 18-977 (BAH) Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell [128] (PDF) (Report). District Of Columbia District Court. December 10, 2018. Archived [129] (PDF) from the original on February 26, 2019.

See also

  • Katherine Ann Dettwyler § Comments on death of Otto Warmbier

  • The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore § Otto Warmbier

  • List of foreign nationals detained in North Korea

  • North Korea–United States relations

  • Tourism in North Korea

  • List of unsolved deaths


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Citation Linkopenlibrary.orgThe failure of the defendant to respond to the lawsuit allows the plaintiff to request to the court that the original damages pleaded in the complaint be awarded without going to trial and without having those damages contested.
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Citation Linkweb.archive.orgTucker, Eric (December 24, 2018). "US judge orders North Korea to pay for torture, death of student". The Sydney Morning Herald. Archived from the original on March 2, 2019. Retrieved March 2, 2019. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scarred wound on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electrocution.
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