Who Is Truly to Blame for the Fate of Otto Warmbier?

First off, what happened to Otto?

  • Otto Frederick Warmbier, Age:22 (December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017)
  • University of Virginia student visiting North Korea with the adventure group Young Pioneers.


  • While touring Pyongyang in January 2016, arrested (prior to departing from the airport) and sentenced to 15 years (hard labor)
  • Conviction: Stealing a propaganda banner (depicting the N. Korean leader Kim Jong-un) from his hotel, a capital crime in the country. Evidence at the trial included:
  • The United States begins diplomatic efforts towards Warmbier’s release, while maintaining low profile on coverage.
  • 2 months into his prison term, Warmbier suffers from severe brain injury, enters into comatose state.
  • June 12th, 2017: Warmbier is released on “humanitarian grounds”, immediately flown back to the US for emergency treatment.
    • Warmbier arrived the following evening (June 13th) at University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment.
    • Doctors describe his state as “unresponsive”, Otto only able to breathe and blink his eyes, in a state of vegetation.
  • June 19th, 2017: 6 days later, Warmbier dies.
    • Medical records are sent from North Korea; MRI scans show extensive brain damage since April 2016.
    • UCMC medical team state Warmbier had been suffering a loss of brain tissue, due to a lack of passable oxygen.
    • Despite obvious brain injury, doctors found no sign of “physical abuse” or “torture”; scans around the neck and head showed normal function.
  • Otto’s father held a press conference on June 15th, holds North Korean government accountable for not providing better care and keeping his condition a secret, accusing of mistreatment toward their son.
  • North Korea initially blames the cause as result of “botulism” and a sleeping pill gone rogue, though US physicians found NO evidence of botulism, stating the death is a “mystery.” Officials of North Korea add that their country is the “biggest victim.”
    • “Korean Central News Agency, adding that allegations that North Korean officials were to blame for his death are part of a U.S. ‘frontal challenge,’ and ‘political plot’.” (VICE News)
  • Some U.S. officials blamed North Korea for his death. He was one of 16 American citizens detained by North Korea since 1996, including three who are still in custody today. Though a “criminal of the enemy state”, North Korean continued to ensure Otto was treated with respect, and that the family allegations were “groundless.”
  • Otto’s family requested an autopsy not be performed, only an external examination was conducted. Doctors suggest blood clot or pneumonia, as sleeping pills would require coinciding botulism to occur. They also shared their view on the family not allowing an autopsy to be performed, to which they honored.
  • CNN writer Ben Tinker reports “’I think it’s a terrible mistake’ not to perform an autopsy… If you have something that could be anything other than a natural death, you’re obligated to do an autopsy.” (CNN)
  • June 23, 2017: Otto Warmbier’s funeral was held in Wyoming, Ohio.

funeral-otto-warmbier-mourners (1)

What to take from this:

When I looked over numerous media sites, I consistently found the exact same piece, same list of facts presented by both sides of the matter, both using faulty claims and admitting his death was simply a mystery, maybe an accident.

Until Politico.com brought in the questionable behaviors and misconduct performed by the tour guides of Young Pioneers.

Interviews with some of the tourists in the program at the time commented, “It seems partying was a bigger part of the job description than taking care of us…throughout the day, there would be “a fair degree of sobriety and propriety,” but during the evenings, the Western tour guides would be drinking heavily… I don’t know if Otto did what he was supposed to have done, or if his detention was a result of poor tour guide guidance,” the second participant told me. “But all of the tour guides were young people who get very drunk. It was sort of like there were few or no adults around.” (Politico)

Similar occurrences have occurred in past years, even with tourists vanishing into the country to a mysterious fate. Would this be the fault of the touring company, or the United States or North Korea for not better overseeing the regulation on tour companies. Or, is that professor from the University of Delaware on to something in placing blame over Otto’s death on no one but himself?

I guess it’s up to Dennis Rodman now to figure this debacle out, as tense relations between the United States and North Korea continue to escalate, at a deafening rate. One article from the New York Times examines the dangers of traveling to the country:

“It was then I realized that we had fallen under suspicion. In retrospect, given what happened to Mr. Warmbier, the entire trip was an unnecessary risk. The obfuscation about my identity, my damp and beaten passport, the surreptitiously taken photos — some of them cutting the head off Kim Il-sung — could easily have been used to construe nefarious intent… A lot of people say I was stupid. But it’s easy to underestimate the danger of a place like North Korea, to feel that it’s not real.”

It’s easy to feel separated from the realities of the world, of the way societies run, the rules we know not to break, the horrors that lurk, and the results of poor misjudgment and naïve foolishness. Otto didn’t morally deserve this fate, regardless of how he acted or what crime he committed, this moral crisis was on us, all of us, because this incident doesn’t make a statement towards “rich, white middle-class males,” or the highly militarized empty shell that is North Korea.

This speaks to everyone, and our inability to learn from instances, not electing leaders that immediately call out action (John Fucking McCain), nor an administration that co-chooses to hush the urgency of the situation like the Obama administration. At what point are we sacrificing international relations’ progress for the sake of marginally beneficial sanctions keeping the United States ahead in collective financial interests.

There is going to be a point where not only this nation, but adjacent nations and states, will globalize. The topic will come to conversation. Now I’m not saying one nation, Pangea-type-shit. I’m saying incredible events the Paris Agreement, in which nearly every country in the world came together to give a shit about the same thing at one time, the fucking earth. (Please do your research on proper empirical sites and come back when you realize climate change has BEEN a thing, but I digress.)

One must look at how North Korea formed, how totalitarian states form (Trump’s America), how nations form, and look to avoid those same cycles of rebellion and resentment in government. Because at this day and age, a teenager with a laptop and coding classes could wipe out half the world off the face of the map.

The Fate of Otto Warmbier, simply put, is a reflection of us, this collective of faceted androids faltering into states of perpetual paranoia, letting fear reign. Until we learn to overcome, we will continue, as the fate of Otto, to be a mystery.

John Donegan
Author: John Donegan
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