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Otto Warmbier – The US hostage who died after North Korean torture

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North Korea arrested an American soldier who it claimed crossed the DMZ into the Hermit Kingdom sending tensions soaring. But it’s not the first time Pyongyang has snatched a US citizen.

The most infamous case is that of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was on a tour in North Korea when he was arrested by Kim Jong-un’s goons.

The student was eventually sent back to the States but he died after suffering severe injury to his brain – some think mistreatment at the hands of the rogue state may have cost him his life.

With another US citizen in Pyongyang’s custody – this time an American soldier – it’s worth looking back at the case of Otto Warmbier which ended in tragedy…

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Who was Otto Warmbier?

The University of Virginia student entered North Korea on December 29, 2015, when he was 21 years old. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Warmbier was an avid traveler who visited Israel, Cuba, Ecuador and various European countries.

He was set to take part in a study abroad program in Hong Kong beginning in early 2016 but decided to embark on a guided tour to North Korea with the company Young Pioneer Tours.

The China-based company’s slogan was “destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from”.

Warmbier flew from Beijing to Pyongyang for a five-day tour over the New Year’s Eve holiday which he reportedly celebrated by drinking with his group in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square.

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Otto Warmbier’s arrest and trial

At around 2am on New Year’s Day, North Korea’s government alleges that Warmbier attempted to steal a propaganda poster from a restricted area in the Yanggakdo International Hotel where he was staying.

When he was arrested at Pyongyang International Airport on January 2 members of his group were told that he was “very sick” and had been taken to a hospital.

North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA reported the student had been detained for “hostile acts against the state”.

During a press conference on February 29, 2016, Warmbier read a prepared statement that included his confession.

During the presser, he admitted to attempting to steal a propaganda poster that read: “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”

Stealing or damaging items with the name or image of Kim Jong-un is a serious crime in North Korea. Although it’s unknown whether the confession was forced, many observers noted it was clear Warmbier was under duress during the conference.

He was found guilty by North Korea’s supreme court for a crime “pursuant to the US government’s hostile policy toward [North Korea], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist”.

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.

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How did Otto Warmbier die?

It may never be known exactly how Warmbier died, but there are some clues – as well as widespread speculation.

The University of Virginia student was medically evacuated from North Korea in June 2017, more than a year after a court sentenced him to 15 years in prison with hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda banner.

The 22-year-old had “completed his journey home,” relatives said in a statement. They did not cite a specific cause of death.

“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,” his parents said at the time.

North Korea maintains that Warmbier fell into a coma after contracting botulism but doctors in the US found no trace of the disease in his body.

Physicians had described his condition as a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.

Some observers believe that North Korea became worried because Warmbier’s condition suddenly worsened.

“North Korea sent him back to the United States before he died because more questions would have been raised about his death and the situation would have gotten worse if it had returned his dead body,” said Cheong Seong-jang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

Others believe it is unlikely that North Korea intentionally harmed Warmbier because he was valuable as a political pawn. Poor hygienic conditions, diet or bad medical care may have been responsible for a coma that North Korean doctors couldn’t handle.

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