The tragic death of Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old American student, shows the true colors of North Korea’s abusive regime, human rights organizations say. Warmbier died Monday afternoon at an Ohio hospital from injuries suffered during 17 months of detention in North Korea.
At a show trial in 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years forced labor after he was charged with ‘’hostile acts against the state’’ for allegedly attempting to remove a political banner from his hotel.
Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday that the international community must now recognize the reality that North Korea is a human rights black hole for both foreigners and citizens. Warmbier’s death should be a wake-up call to governments that focus must not just be on security, but also human rights concerns when dealing with Pyongyang.
“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the family wrote after his death.
While visiting North Korea as a tourist in January 2016, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel, while traveling with a Chinese operated tour. The United States made diplomatic efforts to seek Warmbier’s release. Warmbier fell into a coma in prison and was released on June 13th 2017, after nearly 18 months there. He is believed to have been in a coma since March 2016, reportedly after being given a sleeping pill by prison officials.
Greg Scarlatoiu, Executive Director of Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) called Warmbier’s death is a sad and shocking development: ‘’the Kim regime imprisoned and killed Otto Warmbier. Millions of unknown North Koreans are similarly subjected to the brutality of this regime. More than a hundred thousand men, women and children are being tortured, starved and abused in North Korea’s political prison camps. This continuing outrage is what motivates HRNK to do what the Kim regime fears the most: discover and disclose the truth about the regime’s crimes. To honor Otto Warmbier’s life and memory, we will continue to strive to inform, persuade and inspire political leaders to confront this terrible challenge to global security and to human values.’’
‘’We urge our political leaders to reach across the aisle and foster bipartisan support for the millions of faceless, nameless North Korean victims, by elevating the importance of addressing the human rights situation in that country,’’ Scarlatoiu added.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch said while Warmbier should have never been sent to trial in the first place, most expected that after a period of being isolated and interrogated, he would be returned home after the US made some political concessions to Pyongyang. After all, this is what North Korea has done with many Americans in the past.
‘’No one anticipated that Warmbier would be abused in a way that more closely resembles the manner in which North Korea treats its own citizens, where those who cross the government or show disloyalty to leader Kim Jong-Un face severe consequences, including death. At his trial, Warmbier cried out for forgiveness for making what he called the “worst mistake of my life.” But since he was a foreigner, few believed that mistake would cost him his life,’’ Robertson said.
Additionally, Robertson said that North Korea committed a grave injustice against Warmbier and his family, and they deserve the truth from Pyongyang about what happened: ‘’No one believes Pyongyang’s claim that his condition was triggered by botulism and a medically ill-advised sleeping pill. How did such a healthy young man suffer such severe brain damage that he remained in a coma since March 2016?’’
Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in North Korea, said Warmbier’s case is “a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate treatment for prisoners (in North Korea).” On June 16th, Ojea Quintana said “While I welcome the news of Mr. Warmbier’s release, I am very concerned about his condition, and the authorities have to provide a clear explanation about what made him slip into a coma. His case serves as a reminder of the disastrous implications of the lack of access to adequate medical treatment for prisoners in the DPRK.’’
Human Rights Watch said that North Korea should immediately release other foreigners it has detained – six South Korean, one Canadian and three Americans – and end its practice of seizing foreign nationals for political purposes. HRW stressed that governments around the world must now recognize that they can expect no special treatment from Pyongyang for their detained nationals: ‘’Only by making human rights a primary demand – for everyone in North Korea, citizens and foreigners alike – can they reasonably hope to change Pyongyang’s abusive practices.’’
Information on prisons is scarce in North Korea. In 2014 a United Nations commission of inquiry found that thousands of people were routinely detained in facilities across the country, held in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture and forced labor.
The country is also thought to operate up to five political prison camps for the most serious crimes. Foreign nationals have also been detained on political grounds, including two US university professors in Pyongyang who were arrested this year for allegedly plotting anti-state acts.
Ojea Quintana stressed that the authorities had failed to protect Mr. Warmbier from the start. “His ordeal could have been prevented had he not been denied basic entitlements when he was arrested, such as access to consular officers and representation by an independent legal counsel of his choosing,” the Special Rapporteur said.
The expert noted the DPRK has signed up to five human rights treaties and the 1963 Vienna convention on consular relations that guarantee these basic rights.
It is not clear how Mr. Warmbier’s release had been secured, although his rapidly declining health may have been an incentive for North Korea to discharge him. “The onus is on the DPRK government to clarify the causes and circumstances of the release,” Ojea Quintana insisted.
“I call on the DPRK authorities to protect all prisoners, be they North Korean or foreigners. Release on humanitarian grounds should always be considered when the person’s health deteriorates to the point of putting their lives in danger, regardless of their crime,” he concluded.
Otto’s parents released the following 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 pm.
It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.
We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.
When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished.
Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.
We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers. We are at peace and at home too.
Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family