Many anti-North Korea human rights activists criticize President Moon Jae-in for not meeting the parents of Otto Warmbier, a 22 year old university student, who died shortly after being released from North Korea in 2017.
Among these are his parents, Cindy and Fred Warmbier, who seem to be convinced that he was tortured and murdered by North Korea. They appear to have become devoted anti-North Korea human rights activists in their own right.
However, the facts suggest that while North Korea may deserve the most blame because Otto Warmbier was in their custody and they kept his tragic condition a secret, multiple other factors likely contributed to his death.
First among these factors is the series of bad choices the young Otto Warmbier may have made for himself.
He may have ignored the US State Department travel advisory for North Korea, which in April 2015 warned that tourists risked being “arrested, detained, or expelled for activities that would not be considered criminal outside North Korea.”
He may have hired the wrong tour company, Young Pioneers Tours, which insensitively still says on its website: “[W]e provide ‘budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.’”
And he may have broken the law of a country notorious for being hyper-nationalistic, at war with the US, and often hostile to Americans. They also have few basic laws that protect individual rights.
Second, what caused the coma while Otto Warmbier was in North Korean custody remains a mystery, perhaps more so because the parents declined to perform a full autopsy after they made the difficult and likely painful decision to deprive his body of life-support.
North Korea diagnosed the cause as botulism. But tests by US doctors showed no signs of botulism, though the symptoms could disappear over time.
Torture is assumed by many, including his parents, but the US doctors also found no signs of torture. Instead, they suggest that his body was well taken care of, avoiding complications related to being immobile.
There is another argument against the allegations of torture and murder, however. American prisoners are often found to be well treated when they are released. One reason may be that they are held for ransom.
Indeed, the humiliating show-trial may likely signal this intent. Bizarrely, North Korea reportedly did give US officials a bill of $2 million for taking care of him, which the US denies paying.
Third, the geopolitics did not help.
Perhaps North Korea could have better diagnosed and treated his condition or asked the US for help as soon as his condition became apparent. But the US and UNSC (United Nations Security Council) sanctions restrict the flow of medicine, fuel, and medical equipment into North Korea. The country is also at war with the US.
Fourth, the Warmbiers’ strong belief that their son was tortured and murdered may be based more on conditioned prejudice than the facts. Specifically, it could have been shaped by US government policy.
Under the “Strategic Patience” policy of President Barak Obama, the White House reportedly asked his parents to keep quiet. But under the “Maximum Pressure” policy of President Donald Trump, the US government appears to have led the charge of torture and murder against North Korea, tugging the Warmbiers along.
For example, after Otto Warmbier’s death in 2017, top US politicians and officials called it “murder” and “criminal.” Trump Tweeted that Otto Warmbier was “tortured beyond belief.” In 2018, the US Federal District Court awarded his parents $501 million in damages, part of which was payable immediately from a US government fund. Also in 2018, the US Vice-President Mike Pence took the Warmbiers to South Korea’s Winter Olympics as his official guests. In his 2019 State of the Union Address, Trump introduced the Warmbiers and condemned North Korean human rights abuses. And this past October, the US government sold a seized North Korean ship to compensate the Warmbiers.
Fifth, you cannot ignore the impact of US-led international sanctions which deprive North Koreans of life-saving medicine, fuel, and medical equipment – the very same resources which could have saved Otto Warmbier.
Finally, we may never know the ultimate cause of his coma. While you cannot conclusively rule out torture, you can’t conclusively prove it either. Other inconclusive possibilities include an accident, a suicide attempt, a heart attack, an infection, and even a pre-existing condition.
Calling it a murder and pinning it on North Korea just fits better with popular perceptions which are largely shaped by US policy. Circumstantial evidence, however, suggests that the ultimate cause of his death is much more complicated. One cannot reasonably ignore other factors that could have conspired with the North Korean behaviors.
The parents of Otto Warmbier deserve all our sympathies for the loss of their son. No one deserves to lose a child before they themselves depart.
Certainly, by most standards of human rights, Otto Warmbier did not deserve to die for stealing a mere political poster. Nor did he deserve a 15-year sentence. Being humiliated on TV was quite excessive.
However, struggling with the possible breakdown of his effort to diplomatically engage North Korea and find a peaceful solution to ending the Korean War, President Moon probably found it prudent to not meet the parents.
As for the Warmbiers, considering all factors, perhaps it is best to let their son rest in peace without getting him further entangled in The Great Perpetual Propaganda War.
Featured image of Otto Warmbier’s Show-Trial: AFP Photo/KCNA