Explainer: American student released by North Korea has died

June 20, 2017

What just happened?

An American college student returned to the United States with severe brain damage after being held in a North Korean prison camp died on Monday.

When twenty-two year old Otto Warmbier of Wyoming, Ohio arrived back home last week, he was reported to be in stable condition, though doctors said he showed no sign of understanding language, was unable to respond to verbal commands, and was awareness of his surrounding.”

Why was the student in a prison camp?

Warmbier was arrested at the airport when his tour group was leaving North Korea. He was accused of entering the country with the intent of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity” and charged with subversion and a “hostile act” for purportedly attempting to steal a propaganda banner from a hotel.

In a videotaped confession that his parents say was coerced, Warmbier said:

“I never, 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 DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!”

After a one hour trial Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor.

At the time of the arrest, a spokesman for the Obama administration said the harsh penalty was a retaliation because of additional sanctions the U.S. put on North Korea.

How did Warmbier become injured?

The North Korean government said the student had fallen into a coma after contracting botulism and being given a sleeping pill. American doctors who examined him found no botulism in his system and said that, while the cause of his injuries were unknown, the brain damage was consistent with cardiac arrest that stops the flow of blood to the brain.

Warmbier’s family said he died on Monday at 2:20 pm. No official cause of death has been announced.

How was he freed?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed President Trump on the situation back in February. The president directed Secretary Tillerson to take all appropriate measures to secure the release of Warbmier and other American hostages in North Korea.

Last month, US State Department Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun meets with officials from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo, Norway to negotiate the release. Yun traveled to North Korea this month and a demanded the North Koreans release Warmbier on humanitarian grounds. A day later the student was evacuated with a medical team back to the U.S.

Isn’t it illegal to travel to North Korea?

The Department of State strongly warns U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea and notes that they are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement. But it is currently legal to travel to the country.

However, two Congressmen—Democrat Adam Schiff and Republican Joe Wilson— recently wrote a bill that would ban tourist travel by Americans and require other visitors to acquire a special license from the Treasury Department.

How many Americans are still being held in North Korea?

About 1,000 Americans travel to the communist country each year, over the past decade, 17 Americans have been detained. Three Americans— Kim Dong Chul, Kim Hak-song, and Kim Sang Duk—are still being held. 

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More