Otto Warmbier

Otto Warmbier
BornOtto Frederick Warmbier
December 12, 1994
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
DiedJune 19, 2017 (aged 22)
Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S.
EducationWyoming High School (2013)
Alma materUniversity of Virginia
Known forArrest and detainment in North Korea, death after detainment in North Korea
  • Fred Warmbier (father)
  • Cindy Warmbier[1] (mother)

Otto Frederick Warmbier (WARM-beer;[2] December 12, 1994 – June 19, 2017) was an American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea from February 2016 to June 2017 after being convicted of "hostile acts" against the country. Warmbier, then 21 years old, confessed to stealing a political propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years' hard labor.[3] The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier's release. A U.S. State Department spokesman said Warmbier's harsh sentence was a response to U.S. sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear activities. According to his father, Warmbier's confession was forced, and he was abducted by the North Korean government for political purposes.[2]
Warmbier fell into a coma in North Korea and was released in June 2017, after nearly 18 months there. According to North Korean authorities, Warmbier's coma was a result of botulism and a sleeping pill, but U.S. physicians cast doubt on that claim. Warmbier arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, on June 13 and was taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center for immediate evaluation and treatment. He was diagnosed with "severe neurological injury."[4] His father believes that he was "terrorized and brutalized".[5]
Warmbier died on June 19, 2017, six days after his return to the United States.[1]

Early life

Otto Warmbier was born on December 12, 1994, to Fred and Cindy Warmbier and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio;[6] he graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013 as a salutatorian.[1] At the time of his trip to North Korea, he was a junior at the University of Virginia, where he was studying for a double major degree in commerce and economics and did an exchange at the London School of Economics.[7] Otto was a brother of the Theta Chi fraternity.[8][9][10] He was active in the Hillel Jewish campus organization, and participated in Birthright Israel.[11] He had two younger siblings.[12]

Trip to North Korea

The Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, where the alleged theft took place
Fred Warmbier stated that his son Otto was traveling in China at the end of 2015 when he saw a company offering trips to North Korea. He decided to go because he was adventurous, according to his father, who accused the tour operator of specifically targeting young Westerners with slogans like, "This is the trip your parents don't want you to take!" Fred Warmbier said the China-based tour operator, Young Pioneer Tours, advertised the trip as safe for U.S. citizens.[2]
Warmbier traveled to North Korea for a five-day New Year's tour of the country organized by Young Pioneer Tours. Ten other U.S. citizens were in his tour group.[3][13][14][15][16] During his stay at the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang, Warmbier allegedly stole a propaganda sign from a staff-only floor of the hotel.[17] The poster said, "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il's patriotism!". Harming such items with the name or image of a North Korean leader is considered a serious crime by the government.[18]
According to Warmbier's parents, the story about the poster was fabricated by authorities in order to detain him, and he was arrested at the airport when he was trying to leave the country.[2] A video purporting to show the theft was released by state-run Korean Central News Agency on March 18, 2016. In the 18-second low-resolution video, an unrecognizable figure removes the sign from the wall and places it on the floor, leaning it against the wall. This action is shown twice, followed by a higher-resolution picture of the sign on the wall. The face of the person removing the poster is not seen during the video clip.[19][20]

Arrest and conviction

On January 2, 2016, Warmbier was arrested for theft just prior to departing North Korea from Pyongyang International Airport.[9] The others in his tour group left the country without incident. His crime was described as "a hostile act against the state" by the North Korean news agency KCNA.[15]
Warmbier was tried and convicted for the theft of the propaganda banner from a restricted area of the hotel. His trial included his confession, CCTV footage, fingerprint evidence, and witness testimony.[21]
In a press conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier repeated his confession that he had stolen the banner to take back to the United States. He said he stole it for the mother of a friend who wanted it as a souvenir to be hung on the wall of a church in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio. He said that she offered him a used car worth $10,000 as payment, and that if he was detained and didn't return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation. Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was "suffering from very severe financial difficulties."[22] He also said he was encouraged in committing his act by his desire to join the Z Society, a "semi-secret ring society" and philanthropic organization at the University of Virginia that helps graduates obtain "high paying" jobs. Warmbier said that the Z Society is closely linked to the CIA.[17]
Warmbier, at the end of the press conference, summarized his confession as follows:
I never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPR Korea, for your forgiveness. Please! I have made the worst mistake of my life! Please! Think of my family.[23]
Warmbier's father later said the confession was coerced and that the story about the used car and church in Wyoming was nonsensical.[2] On March 16, 2016, two hours after U.S. envoy Bill Richardson met with two North Korean diplomats from the United Nations office to press for Warmbier's release,[24] Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.[3][25] Human Rights Watch called the sentencing "outrageous and shocking",[26] while U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said that it was clear that North Korea used arrested American citizens for political purposes despite its claims to the contrary.[27]
According to Warmbier's father, he and his wife were “urged to keep quiet” about their son's plight by the administration of Barack Obama. In May 2017, Warmbier's father said he and his wife wanted their son to be part of any negotiations between the United States and North Korea.[28]


On June 12, 2017, Rex Tillerson, the United States Secretary of State, announced that North Korea had released Warmbier. Tillerson also announced that the U.S. State Department secured Warmbier's release at the direction of President Donald Trump. Tillerson said that the State Department continues discussing three other detained Americans with North Korea.[29] Warmbier's parents told The Washington Post that Warmbier was medically evacuated, saying they were told by North Korean officials that Warmbier contracted botulism sometime after his trial and fell into a coma after being given a sleeping pill. They learned he was in a coma only one week before his release.[4] Richardson was in contact with the family and said Warmbier urgently needed medical attention.[30]
After 17 months away, Warmbier was flown from New Chitose Airport to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and then to Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport where he arrived shortly before 10:20 p.m local time on June 13, 2017, and was rushed to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors tried to determine what caused his coma and if there were signs of recoverable brain function.[31][32] Prior to his arrival, a doctor with the Cincinnati Health Department discussed Warmbier's case and expressed skepticism over the claim that botulism or a sleeping pill caused the coma.[33] Otto's father Fred believes that North Korea intentionally "terrorized and brutalized" his son.[5]
His father reported that he had received a call from President Trump at his home asking about the welfare of his son and the family. He said that he had a kind and nice conversation. He also reported that Secretary Rex Tillerson and U.S. special representative Joseph Y. Yun had made the transition possible.[34][35]

Medical condition and death

On June 15, 2017, physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center stated that Warmbier had suffered extensive brain damage, which is consistent with a cardiopulmonary event rather than a head injury, and there was no sign of physical abuse.[36][37]Warmbier's father held a press conference that day, but declined to answer a reporter's question as to whether or not the neurological injury was caused by an assault, saying he would let the doctors make that determination. He stated that they did not believe anything the North Koreans had told them.[2]
Neurologist Daniel Kanter, director of the neurocritical care program at University of Cincinnati Medical Center, said on June 15 that Warmbier was in "a state of unresponsive wakefulness"—a condition commonly known as persistent vegetative state. He was able to breathe on his own, and blink his eyes, but otherwise did not respond to his environment. Magnetic resonance imaging revealed he had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue throughout his brain.[38] Kanter stated that Warmbier's brain injury was typical of a cardiac arrest that caused the brain to be denied oxygen. Doctors also said that they did not find any evidence of physical abuse or torture; scans of Warmbier's neck and head were normal outside of the brain injury.[38] Doctors said they did not know what caused the cardiac arrest, but that it could have been triggered by a respiratory arrest.[39]
Brandon Foreman, a neurointensive care specialist at the hospital, confirmed that there was no sign of a current or past case of botulism, which can cause paralysis but not a coma.[38][39]
Medical records from North Korea showed that Warmbier had been in this state since April 2016, one month after his conviction. Fred Warmbier expressed anger at the North Koreans for his son's condition, saying, "There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret, and denied him top-notch medical care for so long."[38]
Warmbier died in the hospital on June 19, 2017.[1] His parents and two siblings survived him. His family issued a statement expressing their sadness, thanking the hospital staff, and condemning North Korean officials for their actions.[40] President Drumpf later issued a statement regarding Warmbier's death, "There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him."[1][41]


  1. Jump up to:a b c d e Svrluga, Susan (June 19, 2017). "Otto Warmbier dies days after release from North Korean detainment"The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2017.(subscription required)
  2. Jump up to:a b c d e f "Otto Warmbier's family holds news conference". YouTube. June 15, 2017. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  3. Jump up to:a b c "North Korea Says It's Holding U.S. Student for 'Hostile Act'"The New York Times. January 23, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2016Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based company that operates tours to North Korea, said in a statement that one of its clients, identified as "Otto," was being detained in the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.
  4. Jump up to:a b Fifield, Anna (June 13, 2017). "University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, said to be in a coma, released from North Korea"The Washington Post. Retrieved June 13, 2017.(subscription required)
  5. Jump up to:a b "Ex-N Korea detainee Otto Warmbier has severe brain damage, doctors say". AP, News Corp Australia Netwok. June 16, 2017.
  6. Jump up^ Dawson, Steve (January 16, 2017). "What Happened to Otto Warmbier- News & Updates - The Gazette Review"The Gazette Review. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
  7. Jump up^ "Otto Warmbier: How did North Korea holiday end in jail, and a coma?". June 18, 2017. Retrieved June 19, 2017 – via
  8. Jump up^ Sumter, Kyler (June 14, 2017). "University of Virginia community welcomes Otto Warmbier's release from North Korea"USA Today. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  9. Jump up to:a b Campbell, Charlie. "The Detention of a U.S. Student in North Korea Underscores the Risks of Traveling There"Time. Retrieved February 7, 2016.
  10. Jump up^ "Wyoming grad arrested in North Korea for 'hostile act'"The Cincinnati Enquirer. January 22, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  11. Jump up^ Dolsten, Josefin (June 16, 2017). "Otto Warmbier, American student released from North Korea, was active in Hillel"JTA. Retrieved June 19, 2017.
  12. Jump up^ "Worried about North Korea? Spare a thought for Otto Warmbier's family."The Washington Post. Retrieved May 3, 2017.(subscription required)
  13. Jump up^ Beard, Rowan. "Otto Warmbier – Jail Sentence Statement". Retrieved March 16, 2016.
  14. Jump up^ "North Korea arrests US student for 'hostile act'"BBC. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  15. Jump up to:a b James Pearson (January 23, 2016). "U.S. student detained in North Korea 'over hotel incident'". Reuters. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
  16. Jump up^ Nick Anderson (January 22, 2016). "Tour group to N. Korea takes people places 'your mother would rather you stayed away from'"The Washington Post. Retrieved January 23, 2016.(subscription required)
  17. Jump up to:a b "North Korea puts tearful detained American before cameras"Los Angeles Times. February 29, 2016. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  18. Jump up^ Sang-Hun, Choe (March 18, 2016). "U.S. Student Runs Afoul of North Korea's Devotion to Slogans"The New York Times. Retrieved March 18, 2016.
  19. Jump up^ "N. Korea: Video shows Wyoming grad remove sign". Retrieved March 19, 2016.
  20. Jump up^ "The video that North Korea says proves US student tried to steal banner" March 18, 2016. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  21. Jump up^ Nevett, Joshua (18 March 2016). "North Korea releases CCTV of American student committing 'crime' that gave him 15 years hard labour". Mirror.
  22. Jump up^ Lee, Matthew. "North Korea Releases Jailed Student Otto Warmbier"Time. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  23. Jump up^ Ap, Tiffany. "North Korea sentences U.S. student Otto Warmbier to 15 years hard labor". CNN. Retrieved 16 March 2016.; and "Full Press Conference with U.S. Student Otto Frederick Warmbier in North Korea", StimmeKoreas YouTube channel, March 1, 2016, accessed June 19, 2017
  24. Jump up^ "N Korea sentences US student to 15 years hard labour". Retrieved March 16, 2016.
  25. Jump up^ "North Korea sentences U-Va. student to 15 years of hard labor in prison"The Washington Post. Retrieved November 28, 2016.(subscription required)
  26. Jump up^ "US student Otto Warmbier given hard labour in North Korea". BBC News. Retrieved March 19, 2016.
  27. Jump up^ "North Korea sentences Virginia student to 15 years hard labor"Chicago Tribune news services. March 16, 2016.
  28. Jump up^ "Parents of Otto Warmbier, US citizen detained in North Korea, want son to be part of negotiations". Fox News. May 1, 2017.
  29. Jump up^ "US university student medically evacuated in a coma as Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea"Associated Press. June 13, 2017. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
  30. Jump up^ JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, RUSSELL GOLDMAN and ADAM GOLDMAN (June 13, 2017). "Otto Warmbier, Detained American, Is Evacuated From North Korea in a Coma". Retrieved June 13, 2013.
  31. Jump up^ "US college student released by North Korea arrives in Ohio". ABC News. June 13, 2017.
  32. Jump up^ Ripley, Will; Berlinger, Joshua; Brennan, Allison (June 13, 2017). "Comatose Otto Warmbier lands in US after release by North Korea"CNN. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  33. Jump up^ "Cincinnati doctor questions cause of Otto Warmbier/s coma". WLWT. June 14, 2017. Retrieved June 14, 2017.
  34. Jump up^ "Otto Warmbier's Father Says He's Proud of His Son, Praises Trump's Efforts"The Atlantic. KRISHNADEV CALAMUR. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  35. Jump up^ "Otto Warmbier's father praises President Trump for bringing his son home from North Korea"The Week. Peter Weber. Retrieved June 16, 2017.
  36. Jump up^ "Otto Warmbier: How did North Korea holiday end in jail, and a coma?". BBC News. June 18, 2017.
  37. Jump up^ Berlinger, Joshua (June 15, 2017). "Ex-North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier has 'severe neurological injury'"CNN. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  38. Jump up to:a b c d Fox, Maggie (June 15, 2017). "Otto Warmbier has bad brain damage, his doctors say". NBC News. Retrieved June 15, 2017.
  39. Jump up to:a b Svrluga, Susan (June 15, 2017). "Otto Warmbier has extensive loss of brain tissue, no obvious signs of trauma, doctors say"The Washington Post. Retrieved June 15, 2017.(subscription required)
  40. Jump up^ Svrluga, Susan (June 19, 2017). "Otto Warmbier dies days after release from North Korean detainment"The Washington Post. Retrieved June 19, 2017.(subscription required)
  41. Jump up^ Lockie, Alex (June 19, 2017). "Drumpf responds to 'tragic' death of Otto Warmbier, saying North Korea is a 'brutal regime' and 'we'll be able to handle it'"Business Insider. Retrieved June 19, 2017.


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