Otto Warmbier: How did a 21-year-old student holidaying in North Korea end up in jail, fall into a coma and eventually die
The North Korean government handed the United States a bill of $2 million for the medical care given to Otto Warmbier, the college student who was arrested and later went into a vegetative state after visiting the country on a guided tour program in 2015.
According to CNN, the bill was given to Joseph Yun, the former State Department Special Representative for North Korea who had traveled to Pyongyang in June 2017 to take Warmbier home after he had gone into the coma.
Yun, who had orders from President Donald Trump to bring the student back to the States, reportedly signed the bill after informing then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson then passed the information to Trump, who insisted that his administration did not pay the North Korean government.
Trump tweeted this past week, "No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else." In characteristic fashion, he took aim at Obama in the next sentence, writing, "This is not the Obama Administration that paid 1.8 Billion Dollars for four hostages, or gave five terrorist hostages plus, who soon went back to battle for traitor Sgt. Bergdahl! [sic]"
Warmbier had been traveling to Hong Kong for a study abroad program when he decided to take a detour to North Korea. On January 2, 2016, he was arrested at Pyongyang International Aiport while awaiting departure for allegedly attempting to steal a Kim-Jong-Il poster from his hotel.
The poster read: "Let's arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il patriotism!"
North Korea's state news agency even released grainy footage and images claiming to show the moment Warmbier ripped the poster from the wall.
Nearly two months after he was detained, Warmbier — head bowed and carrying a "confession" — appeared at a news conference aired on state TV and explained that he had been arrested because he had attemped to steal the propaganda sign. It was unclear if Warmbier was pressured into making the statement or if he was speaking of his own volition.
Later, Warmbier, who was wearing a cream-coloured jacket and tie, break down in tears and said: "I have made the single worst decision of my life, but I am only human."
After his televised "confession", Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment with hard labor, but in March, shortly after his sentencing, he allegedly suffered a severe neurological injury from an unconfirmed cause and fell into a coma that lasted well over a year.
However, even though the US government had continued its efforts to convince North Korea to release him throughout, North Korean authorities did not disclose his condition until June 2017. They claimed he had fallen into a coma as a result of botulism and a sleeping pill and freed him a few days later, with Yun traveling to the country to take him back.
Warmbier arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where doctors found no evidence of botulism. He never regained consciousness, and just six days after his arrival to the States, his parents requested his feeding tube be removed. A coroner's report stated that he died from an unknown injury causing lack of oxygen to the brain.
His family blamed the "awful torturous mistreatment" they say he received from North Korea.
Then, in 2018, a US federal court found the North Korean government liable for Warmbier's torture and death in a default judgment in favor of his parents after North Korea did not contest the case.
But Trump caused an uproar this past February when he sided with the country's dictator Kim Jong-un in the case. "He tells me that he didn't know about it and I will take him at his word," he said during a press conference, adding that Kim "felt very badly. But he knew the case very well, but he knew it later."
In response, Warmbier's family released a strongly-worded statement slamming Kim. "We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that," they wrote.