Tensions with North Korea have continued to escalate in recent months, primarily due to Kim Jong un’s regime continuing to develop and test nuclear weapon and ballistic missile technology in the face of repeated UN resolutions and sanctions. However, the effect of one American student’s death after being released from North Korean custody can’t be understated, as it, in many ways, set the tone for escalating assertions levied at Kim’s regime from the United States of America. What exactly happened to the 22-year-old, however, remains shrouded in mystery.
Otto Warmbier, an American that was arrested during a brief visit to North Korea in early 2016 for reportedly stealing a propaganda poster from the hallway of his hotel, was returned to the United States, in June of this year. The student, who had left in good health, returned in a coma, and according to his parents, in a dismal physical state.
“We weren’t prepared for this at all,” said Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s mother. “No one had any idea, going in there, what we were going to see.”
Halfway up the stairs, we hear this loud, guttural, howling, inhuman sound. We don’t know what it is,” Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, said. “He’s strapped to the stretcher, and he’s moving around and jerking violently, making these howling, inhuman sounds.”
According to the parents, their son’s hands and legs were “totally deformed,” and medical examinations made prior to his death classified his condition as a state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” apparently caused by brain damage that had occurred more than a year before.
North Korea’s official statement regarding the student’s condition, who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for his crime, indicated that he was suffering from botulism and the effects of ingesting of a sleeping pill, dismissing any claims of torture.
Warmbier’s parents, however, disagreed, claiming that “His bottom teeth look like they had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged them.”
The official report of the coroner that examined Warmbier’s body appears not to support either the parents or North Korea’s statements regarding his condition. Warmbier’s arms and legs did exhibit signs of hyperextension, which could arguably be a sign of torture, or potentially a sign that he lacked muscular control of his limbs during what was believed to be a 12 month waking coma. Further, the medical examiner indicated that there were no signs of trauma in Warmbier’s mouth, including his teeth and jaw.
A number of small scars, as well as one large one measuring 4.3-by-1.6-inches on his right foot, indicated that Warmbier may have had injuries inflicted upon him, but the overall condition of his body suggested to examiners that he had been fairly well cared for once he became bed ridden.
“How do you get a scar that covers the entire top of your foot?” Cindy Warmbier asked. “(The coroner) said it had to be an open wound for months and months and months.”
Despite Cindy Warmbier’s claim, that observation was not present in the coroner’s report. Warmbier’s family declined the medical examiner’s request to conduct an autopsy, so the coroner conducted an external examination as well as a number of x-rays and scans.
“We don’t know what happened to him, and this is the bottom line, ” Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco said after examining the body, though she did clarify that a full autopsy may not have revealed any more evidence, as his death was caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain.
When asked directly if her examination indicated that Warmbier had been tortured by North Korea, she responded, “the fact that he has anoxic encephalopathy or brain damage caused by the lack of oxygen to the brain, we don’t know what the root cause of that is.”
“We don’t have enough information about what happened to Otto, that initial insult, to draw any conclusions,” Sammarco added.
North Korea has since claimed that President Trump has exploited Warmbier’s condition, going on to even suggest that the United States prompted the Ohio native to visit North Korea and violate the nation’s laws.
“Trump and his clique, for their anti-DPRK propaganda, are again exploiting the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who had been under reform through labor for the criminal act he committed against the DPRK and died after returning to the U.S.,” North Korea’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Thursday, seemingly insinuating that Warmbier’s death was the result of American care, rather than North Korean mistreatment.
Whether or not Warmbier was the subject of physical torture may remain the subject of debate, but the inciting incident that resulted in his effective brain death has also not been acknowledged or divulged by North Korea’s government, which has a standing history of releasing misinformation, particularly in regard to high-profile incidents such as this one. Earlier this year, Kim Jong un’s half-brother, who was once favored to take the reins of the nation, was murdered using a banned chemical weapon linked to North Korea. Kim’s regime also publicly dismissed those accusations, while ushering its citizens that were wanted for questioning out of Malaysia where the attack occurred.
Image courtesy of the Associated Press