The Cable

Otto Warmbier, the American Student Just Released From North Korea, Has Died

Three other U.S. citizens are still held as prisoner in the Hermit Kingdom.


Otto Warmbier, the U.S. student who was detained for 17 months in North Korea for allegedly attempting to snag a propaganda sign on his last night in Pyongyang, has died, his family said in a statement on Monday.

“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home. Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.,” the statement read.

Warmbier was sent back to the United States on Tuesday in a coma. North Korean authorities said he came down with botulism shortly after his public trial last March (though U.S. doctors said they found no evidence), was given a sleeping pill, and was in a coma ever since. On Thursday, his doctor referred to his state as “unresponsive wakefulness,” although his parents have said they believe he recognized that he was at home and safe.

“Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day [of arriving back in the United States] the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace,” they said.

“Even if you believe their explanation of botulism and a sleeping pill causing the coma — and we don’t — there is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long,” Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, told reporters last Thursday.

There are still three American prisoners held by the North Korean regime, and their fate is as yet unclear, as is the shape and scope of any U.S. response to Warmbier’s death. In a statement on Monday, President Donald Trump offered condolences, and said, “Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency.  The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

But exactly what form that condemnation takes is still to be seen. Congress could introduce fresh legislation tightening pressure on Pyongyang, or Washington could redouble efforts to get China to throw its economic leverage over North Korea into the balance.

But any effort by lawmakers or the administration to punish North Korea for Warmbier’s death will have to grapple with two uncomfortable truths. The three Americans still in captivity could restrain U.S. options. Meanwhile, the Hermit Kingdom has made big strides lately in its ability to cause mischief, especially through cyberattacks and a steadily advancing missile and nuclear program.

Photo credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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