Otto Warmbier: How did North Korea holiday end in jail, and a coma? – BBC News
Everyone in frame is smiling and laughing in the North Korean cold. Otto Warmbier, like the other tourists, launches a snowball, captured in slow motion on what appears to be a camera phone.
It’s the kind of innocent fun you expect to be captured on a tour group holiday. Otto turns to his right, mouth wide open, laughing.
“This is the Otto I know and love. This is my brother,” wrote Austin Warmbier, who released the video, which was shot during a three-night North Korea tour at the end of 2015.
Two months later, Otto would again appear on video, but in very different circumstances.
Head bowed and clutching a prepared “confession”, the 21-year-old student walked out in front of North Korean TV cameras to speak, explaining why he had been arrested at the end of that tour, when everyone else had been allowed to leave.
Looming over him were the oversized portraits of North Korea’s former supreme leaders, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
He wore a cream-coloured jacket and tie. Before speaking, he got up an offered a low bow.
Otto thanked the North Korean government for the “opportunity to apologise for my crime, to beg for forgiveness and to beg for any assistance to save my life”.
He said he tried to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel as a “trophy” for a US church with the “connivance of the US administration” in order to “harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people”.
Later, he would break down in tears: “I have made the single worst decision of my life, but I am only human.”
Otto is now back in the US after 15 months of captivity in North Korea. But he is in a coma, cannot understand language and has severe brain damage.
In the year-and-a-half since he threw that snowball, the life of a young man full of promise has been permanently altered.
Much remains unknown about how Otto’s health deteriorated. Doctors at Cincinnati Medical Center say they have seen no sign he was physically abused but they and his family also don’t buy North Korea’s story that he contracted botulism and fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.
But how did a brilliant student from an Ohio suburb with hopes of becoming an investment banker end up imprisoned in a pariah state? And why was he released in a coma?
The Warmbiers hail from a small suburb called Wyoming in Cincinnati, Ohio, where father Fred owns a small company.
Otto attended the best high school in the state, and was prom and homecoming king.
He was not only popular but also studious – he graduated as Salutatorian (the second-highest ranking student in his year) – and a talented athlete. His football coach has said he was a gifted player and a natural leader.
Otto went on to study economics and commerce with a minor in global sustainability at the University of Virginia and flourished there, according to the Washington Post.
The newspaper interviewed Otto’s classmates at their graduation ceremony in May, where #FreeOtto stickers were handed out. The 22-year-old was in his third year of university when he was detained in North Korea. This should have been his graduation too.
Friends described him as a “sports fan who can reel off stats about seemingly any team, a friendly Midwesterner who can break down underground rap lyrics (and craft some of his own), a deep thinker who would challenge himself and others to question their place in the world, a guy from an entrepreneurial family who ate half-price sushi, an insatiably curious person with a strong work ethic and a delight in the ridiculous,” the paper reported.
Otto is said to have known long before his college peers what he wanted to pursue as a career: investment banking.
According to his LinkedIn profile, he sat on the committee of a student investment fund and travelled to London in 2015 to complete a course in advanced econometrics at the London School of Economics.
His studiousness – and interest in travel – were what took him to Asia. Otto had been set to study at a university in Hong Kong on a study abroad programme in January 2016 and decided to stop in North Korea on the way.
He went through a China-based company called Young Pioneer Tours, which boasts of providing “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from”.
‘They decided to take an American’
Danny Gratton, from Staffordshire in the UK, shared a room with Otto Warmbier during the three-night trip – they were the only two members of the tour group who were there on their own.
“From the second I met him we hit it off. He was very bright, intelligent and likeable,” he told the BBC.
The night Otto is said to have tried to take the sign from within a staff-only area of the 1,000-room Yanggakdo International Hotel was New Year’s Eve 2015, the second night of the tour.