How the North Korean Regime Left A College Student Brain Dead

The tragic story of an American college student, Otto Frederick Warmbier.

Apr 21 · 9 min read
Photo Credits: Kurier

In the middle of the Oak Hill Cemetery in Glendale, Ohio, is a gravestone on which the words “Son, Brother, and Friend” are engraved. The engraving describes a young man who was loved by everyone around him, but simply because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time, he met a tragic end. Otto Warmbier was a 22-year-old American college student held in torturous conditions that caused his death by the North Korean regime. This story is about a rising young man who was nothing more than a bargaining tool for the North Korean regime’s political motive, motives that led Otto in a brain-dead condition for over 16 months until he took his final breaths in his parent’s arms.


Photo Credits: Useful Stooges

Otto Warmbier was a kid born in the modern-day and age with a relatively well-documented life. He was sometimes seen backpacking to visit people of other cultures. In other instances, he was seen delivering his high school graduation speech at Wyoming High School, of whom he was the salutatorian. All in all, Otto was adored by everyone, and even more so by his parents.

After getting accepted to the University of Virginia, Otto had his life goals planned and set. He wanted to pursue a career in Economics and Commerce while also traveling around the world and experience life amongst people from other cultures. In 2015, just before taking up an internship at Wall Street, Otto planned a trip to North Korea after taking advice from one of his professors at his university. He was already going for a study abroad semester in Hong Kong, so he decided to spend a few days, including the new years, in North Korea, a place that had piqued his interest. Along with ten other U.S. citizens, Otto booked a tour with Young Pioneer and reached North Korea on 29th December 2015.

New Years Party At North Korea — Almost A Normal Affair (or was it?)

Photo Credits: BBC

From the pictures that we see of Otto and the group, it seemed that everything was going great. In fact, there was a significant influx of foreigners who visited North Korea, so a bunch of college kids from the U.S. partying on New Year’s Eve was not a big deal. However, little did they know that the secretive regime had different plans for this particular young man. The group celebrated New Year’s Eve and partied late into the night, returning home in the early morning and continuing to drink even after reaching their hotel. The group later spent the day in the snow. A video showed Otto throwing a snowball playfully at the camera, the last happy documentation of Otto Warmbier by the group. The cheerful person throwing the snowball had no clue that his life was about to turn into a living nightmare.

Almost A Happy Ending

January 2nd was the day the group was scheduled to board their plane from the Pyongyang International Airport and leave the country with exhilarating memories in the most secretive regime in the world. An almost happy ending, right? This happy ending was so close yet so far. While boarding the plane, Otto was the last person in line and, just before entering, felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning around, he encountered guards with loaded weapons who told the group that Otto has to come with them. There was a sudden tension within the group, with one member even saying, almost jokingly, that this is the last that they will hear from him. As if his words were set in stone, Otto Warmbier was taken from the group, never to be seen in his healthy state ever again. After protests from the group, they were met with gun barrels staring them down, which made them get on the plane and leave Otto behind forever.

What Caused The Arrest Of Otto Warmbier?

Amidst the initial chaos, no one was certain why Otto was taken away by the North Korean authorities. Some speculated that he saw something that he wasn’t meant to see, while others said that it was simply a case of a misunderstanding. However, one thing is sure about Kim Jong Un’s regime: nothing is done out of a mere case of misunderstanding. As Otto’s parents still claim, this seemed a cold, calculated move by the government to have bargaining chips under their belt for their future nuclear testing. Initially, the group was told that Otto was very sick and needed treatment. However, this claim did not make sense as his fellow tourists saw Otto accompany them in perfect health.

CCTV footage screenshot of a man stealing a poster from the hotel. The North Korean regime claimed that it was Otto. Photo Credits: Global News

Soon afterward, the official news reporting channel of North Korea aired an update about Otto, claiming that the regime had arrested him for a hostile act against the state. No one knew what the hostile act was, and the people that accompanied Otto had no recollection of anything during their trip that was out of the ordinary. Almost two months after the initial announcement of Otto’s arrest, the DPRK (Democratic Republic of Korea) finally announced why Otto was to be tried in North Korea’s supreme court. His offense was stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel’s staff-only area on new years night. This swept the floor out of everyone in the United States, and especially Otto’s family, who knew that stealing anything that had the face of North Korean leaders on it was a grave offense in the regime and could lead to devastating consequences.

Otto Warmbier Is Finally Seen After Months Of Disappearance

Photo Credits: BBC

On February 29th, Otto Warmbier is escorted by North Korean authorities to a press conference where he is seen in front of the camera for the first time since his trip. There, he reads out a statement that is clearly written by the North Korean officials. In his statement, Otto admits to stealing the poster and apologizes profusely to the North Korean leaders, even shedding tears. In the end, he bows in front of the people present, a clear indication that the regime wanted complete submissiveness from the young man. Otto was, without a doubt, under extreme duress.

Not surprisingly, the content of the statement was fabricated. He confessed to conspiring against North Korea with the help of a Methodist Church in the U.S. While this can be sold as propaganda around the world, it failed to take into account that Otto was Jewish! But for the North Koreans, it didn’t matter. They had forced a confession out of Otto, and now it was up to the supreme court to decide what the future held for this young man, who once aspired to be a banker at Wall Street.

The Verdict

Despite the heart-wrenching cries of Otto that were aired all over the world, the North Korean regime showed him no mercy. Just two weeks after his confession, Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in the notoriously bad prison system of North Korea. The proof given as the verdict was announced was a grainy inconclusive video with a date of January 1st, New Years Night, and a timestamp of 1:57 A.M., where a man is seen stealing a poster. There is no way to identify him as Otto; in fact, Otto’s tour partners confirm that they had not returned back to the hotel up until 3 A.M. Yet the Supreme Court of North Korea thought that this was more than enough evidence and passed their verdict. The prison system, known as a hub of extreme torture, was supposed to be Otto’s home for the next 15 years.

Photo Credits: NBC News

Why Did North Korea Do This?

Experts say that the answer is simple. Otto was caught in Pyongyang’s carefully calculated decision of showing the world their wrath. They wanted to show the world that they were very capable of shifting the entire socio-political landscape within the United States while sitting so far away. Many have also speculated that Otto acted like North Korea’s human shield, saving them from any international backlash that they might have gotten from testing nuclear weapons after his capture. The DPRK knew that other countries would be deterred from being aggressive, fearing for Otto’s life as long as they held him captive.

The Aftermath of this Tragedy

For 15 months, Otto’s family was kept in the dark about their son. The United States government told them not to make a big fuss about it as it might upset the regime. They were even told that their son was in excellent health by the U.S. intelligence services. While they knew that North Korea is not a place where you would be treated well, they were still optimistic that the government would be able to recover Otto as part of their negotiations with North Korea.

June 13th was when North Korea finally released Otto Warmbier from their custody after successful negotiations with the regime. A breath of fresh air for the Warmbiers, right? Or so they thought. Otto’s parents were informed beforehand that their son had experienced severe brain damage, but they thought that with extensive top-class health care in the U.S., he would once again be the charming person they had last seen him as. However, after landing in the U.S., all hopes of him returning to his real self were lost.

Otto Returns Home Unrecognizable, Never Being Able To Tell His Story

Photo Credits: ABC

Otto Warmbier was in a vegetative state, unresponsive to the warm, heartfelt hugs of his father and deaf to the screams of her horrified sister, who could not see Otto in his current state. The best response he gave was violent grunting followed by spasms and jerks. He was transferred to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. After only six days since his return, Otto passed away after his parents requested to remove his feeding tube.

While North Korea claimed that Otto’s health deteriorated due to botulism and sleeping pills, doctors have deemed this highly unlikely. There were no signs of physical blunt force trauma either. Doctors did conclude this: Otto Warmbier’s brain had received little oxygenation over a prolonged period of time, causing severe muscle degeneration and eventual death. How it happened is something that only Otto could have confirmed. Sadly, he was never able to tell his side of the story.

Final Thoughts

Today, Otto’s parents strive to act as a beacon of hope to those captured by the North Koreans or those under their oppression in any way. As they reminisce about the life of Otto, in his childhood pictures, his high school graduation diploma, and his university scholarship letter with a tear in their eyes, they want to make sure that Otto’s story doesn’t go unheard. They wish destruction upon the North Korean regime so that young men like Otto don’t go through the horrors inside the borders of the oppressive, secretive, and downright brutal regime of Kim Jong Un.

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Freelance Writer. Aspiring Historian & Storyteller. Contact:

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.


Written by


Freelance Writer. Aspiring Historian & Storyteller. Contact:

Lessons from History

Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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