On June 12, 2017 Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old student who was taken prisoner in North Korea 17 months earlier, returned home to the United States in a comatose state. His return marked a warming of relations between the U.S. and the pariah state known for its extensive human-rights abuses, casting new attention on how North Korea treats foreigners in captivity.
After a five-day stay in the country as part of an organized adventure trip, the University of Virginia student was arrested at Pyongyang airport in January 2016 for allegedly taking a propaganda poster from his hotel room. His trial lasted just one hour, and he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison. By March, he was in a coma.
Warmbier’s release came after North Korean officials reached out to the United States in May for an emergency meeting. The two countries put aside tensions around North Korea’s nuclear program in order to negotiate terms for setting Warmbier free. Otto was medically evacuated and flown back to Ohio, where he was greeted by his parents and a small crowd of supporters. That same night, he was brought to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Doctors said he suffered from cardiopulmonary arrest and was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness. They said scans showed extensive brain damage, possibly due to abuse. The North Korean authorities explained his condition by saying that he had contracted botulism and taken a sleeping pill.
A week later, Otto Warmbier was dead.
His parents released a statement saying his death was an inevitable result of “the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans.” But they felt bringing their son home put him at peace.
“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,” they wrote. “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.”
A month after Warmbier’s death, American citizens were banned from traveling to North Korea.