When I was in my freshman year of college, the story of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who allegedly stole a North Korean flag, was all over the news. I remember the story always being very political from the start.
At a very liberal college, some people had very hot takes on the white, American suburban college frat bro as the manifestation of white privilege. Others used the attack as proof of the evil nature of the North Korean regime. Personally, the Otto Warmbier story made me never want to visit North Korea.
I remember not questioning Warmbier actually stealing the flag at the time, given the hot takes at my liberal university. However, I was wrong to just assume Warmbier took the flag. And I was wrong to take the white privilege angle like it was gospel, given how much lack of evidence there is behind whether Warmbier actually stole the flag or not, and the mystery behind how he died at the hands of the North Korean regime.
Various headlines ran in the media at the time that didn’t age well. La Sha at The Huffington Post wrote “North Korea Proves Your White Privilege Is Not Universal” in 2016. But these takes did not age well given the dubiousness of Otto Warmbier actually stealing the flag.
Plus, no white privilege argument could justify what happened to Warmbier.
According to Doug Bock Clark at GQ, who writes an extensive profile of the case after covering it for six months, Warmbier was a 21-year-old student on scholarship at the University of Virginia. In 2016, he made a public apology, one that seemed coerced:
“I have made the single worst decision of my life. But I am only human.… I beg that you find it in your hearts to give me forgiveness and allow me to return home to my family.”
Despite this confession, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea.
Clark says the Warmbier that came back to America was comatose and in a vegetative state. The doctors said he suffered from “unresponsive wakefulness.” He suffered extensive brain damage due to a lack of oxygen. to the brain, but his physical state was still in peak condition.
On June 19, 2017, Otto Warmbier died at a hospital in Cincinnati.
The Warmbier family believed their son was physically tortured. Fred Warmbier said his son’s teeth had been misaligned, and that there was a very large scar on his foot. However, coroners who examined Warmbier posthumously said there were no signs of physical torture. Despite the lack of physical evidence of torture, the narrative was advanced by the Trump administration.
At the end of the day, Warmbier most likely fell into a vegetative state according to Clark, of an accident — allergic reaction or losing oxygen by attempting suicide. And although Warmbier might not have been physically tortured, all accounts of American survivors of North Korean imprisonment cite psychological torture of being questioned rigorously for 15 hours a day.
What happened to Warmbier was a tragedy, but we will never know what really happened. Why, though, was Otto Warmbier imprisoned in the first place? Clark makes it clear the North Korean regime, as brutal as it is, had nothing to gain from returning Otto Warmbier in the state he was returned in. Kim Jong Un and his family had to be “brutal and smart” and had no incentive to “lose a valuable bargaining chip.”
This is a story in search of what happened to him in North Korea, as elusive as the truth is.
Who was Otto Warmbier?
Paul LeBlanc at CNN reports that before Otto Warmbier went to North Korea, he grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio as a star student, star athlete, and universally well-liked person. He graduated from Wyoming High School as a salutatorian and got a scholarship in college to the University of Virginia. Although he hung out around the popular, athletic crowd, he was someone who made everyone feel welcomed and included no matter which circles he hung around in.
At the University of Virginia, Warmbier joined fraternity Theta Chi. He double-majored in economics and commerce and was known to be very smart, nerdy, and prioritized academics above all else. He lived a very planned and regimented life, planning even dates on a calendar.
During his junior year, Clark states he won an internship for finance. He was known to be adventureous and visit new frontiers for American tourists before, like Cuba. During the winter break of his senior year, Warmbier wanted to visit North Korea, which despite being economically sanctioned and closed off from the rest of the world, still gives tours to thousands of Westerners every year in Pyongyang.
If you Google “tour North Korea,” one of the first search results gives travel company Young Pioneer Tours. At the time Otto Warmbier must have done his research, the tour company was a more popular choice. Now, however, the company being associated with the whole Otto Warmbier fiasco probably led to a decline in business, so it is now the second choice behind a group called “Koryo Group,” which even advertises the Pyongyang Marathon for international tourists and audiences.
Regardless, Otto Warmbier went on a trip to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours in the “New Year’s Party Tours.” Warmbier disregarded a government advisory against traveling to North Korea, got on a plane, and never came back the same.
The propaganda poster
First, Warmbier went to China to meet other Young Pioneers before flying to Pyongyang. His group included several other tourists from the West, and he would be closest to Danny Gratton, a British salesman in his 40s who ended up being his roommate throughout the trip.
Gratton and Warmbier had a very close rapport throughout the whole trip. They ended up having a strange sense of humor — Gratton and the rest of the tour group called Warmbier “imperial enemy,” a reference to an incident in 1963 where North Koreans captured 83 American sailors on a spy ship and then tortured them for almost a year because the sailors were “imperial enemies.”
Needless to say, the nickname ended up not aging well given Warmbier’s treatment and later capture.
The group was given a very rehearsed tour. Warmbier seemed to adjust well — he threw snowballs with North Korean children and established a great rapport with the rest of the tour group.
He gave no indication he was planning on stealing a propaganda poster.
On New Year’s Eve, Warmbier and his fellow tour group returned to their hotel, nicknamed the “Alcatraz of Fun.” North Korean officials later said Warmbier, Gratton, and their group were belligerently drunk. But Gratton contests the account, saying no one actually got very drunk during the festivities.
While Gratton and some other Young Pioneers went to the bar, Gratton and Warmbier would be separated during a “two-hour window that none of us can account for.”
In these two hours, between 2:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., the North Korean regime claims Otto Warmbier stole the poster, using grainy CCTV footage (where no one could be identified) to justify his later arrest and detention.
The motive and evidence for Warmbier stealing the poster are both lacking, to say the least.
At his trial, Otto Warmbier gave a clearly rehearsed and likely coerced confession. He said he used his “quietest boots, the best for sneaking” (which most native English speakers would not say) to undermine the regime. He also said he wanted to “harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean administration” on behalf of a secret society in the University of Virginia and on behalf of a Methodist church in his community.
This confession makes no sense given Warmbier is Jewish, not Methodist, and the secret society contested that he had any affiliation with the organization.
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
What happened to him in detention?
Coroners later found no physical damage on Warmbier, which contested the version of events put forth by Warmbier’s family. Coroners say there was no evidence that Warmbier was beaten, although he likely was psychologically tortured like other American detainees, and psychological torture was still a violation of his human rights.
The experts Clark talked to put forth the theory that only some terrible accident could justify how he returned in such a vegetative state. The accident likely occurred right after sentencing, and the immense brain damage on both sides shows a lack of oxygen to the brain as the reason.
Some other American detainees previously attempted suicide. Clark mentions a significant allergic reaction.
At the end of the day, it’s likely we’ll never know. It’s not like the North Korean regime has been transparent in the whole matter, or ever.
The story of Otto Warmbier is one of tragedy and a miscarriage of justice by the North Korean regime for political gain. There is little evidence of Warmbier stealing the propaganda poster, and no matter what accident may have happened to Warmbier, the facts remain.
Otto Warmbier came to North Korea, was unfairly detained and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, and was returned in a comatose, vegetative state. He died soon after.
Over the course of the whole episode, Warmbier ended up being a political tool and bargaining chip. While his parents grieved and did everything they could to return him to America, pleading to the Trump administration on Fox News (since he watched the news network).
The Trump administration let rumors of Warmbier being physically tortured and beaten spread despite having reports to the contrary. The return of Warmbier in 2017 in such a state escalated tensions with North Korea dramatically on the international stage.
But in 2019, Donald Trump seemed to absolve Kim Jong Un of responsibility:
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word…[He] felt badly about it. He felt very badly.”
At the end of the day, it’s hard to tie any narrative to the death of Otto Warmbier besides the death being a senseless tragedy at the hands of a brutal regime. The narrative of white privilege falls flat in light of little evidence Warmbier actually stole the poster, and in light of what later happened to Warmbier. If anything, being a white American in North Korea likely made Warmbier more of a target and political asset to the North Korean regime.
On October 19, 2021, Congress passed the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korea Censorship and Surveillance Act to “promote freedom of information and counter censorship and surveillance in North Korea.”
Otto Warmbier’s death made his parents urge the United Nations not to let their son die in vain. It’s likely in the context of international relations, the episode, as well as other human rights violations of Americans at the hands of North Korea, will always be a point of tension between the United States and North Korea, as it probably should be.
Otto Warmbier was survived by his parents and two siblings. At the end of the day, they lost a son and a brother, and that’s a fact no one can dispute.
Originally published on CrimeBeat on 12/19/2021.