By John Burton
The case of Warmbier had become a cause celebre after the University of Virginia student had returned to the U.S. in June 2017 in a comatose state after being held in North Korea for 17 months for "hostile" actions against the state. He died days after his return. The widely accepted narrative in the U.S. was that Warmbier had fallen into a coma after he was tortured and mistreated in a North Korean jail.
"I did speak about it, but I don't believe [Kim Jong-un] would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn't to his advantage to allow that to happen," said Trump in response to the question. Kim "felt badly about it. He knew the case very well, but he knew it later."
Trump's remarks were taken as another example of how the president likes to cozy up to the autocratic leaders from Russian President Vladimir Putin to Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman. Nonetheless, Trump may have been close to the truth in speaking about Kim's role in the episode.
There is no question that North Korea has routinely arrested visiting Americans on flimsy pretexts and used them as bargaining chips to gain concessions from Washington. But the case of Warmbier was different in one significant respect in that he appeared to have been physically mistreated by his captors. Other Americans who have been imprisoned by North Korea have been subject to solitary confinement, psychological abuse and hard labor. But none reported being tortured.
Shortly after Warmbier's death, I spoke with Kenneth Bae, the Korean-American Christian pastor who was arrested in 2012 and held for two years in North Korea. I asked him whether he was surprised by the reports of Warmbier's mistreatment and he replied that he was.
Although he and other American hostages were held under harsh conditions, North Korea realizes that if the detainees are harmed, they lose their propaganda value and lead to heightened tensions with the U.S. "I was never tortured," said Bae, "and I find it difficult to believe that they would torture Otto Warmbier."
On the other hand, Warmbier's parents insisted that their son had been tortured. They claimed that Otto's arms and legs were "totally deformed" and "it looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth." These allegations appeared to fit in with a broader narrative that North Koreans are extremely cruel to all those they hold in captivity.
No surgical autopsy was ever performed on Warmbier for religious reasons, which prevented doctors from reaching a firm conclusion on what caused his brain damage. But a local coroner did conduct an external examination of the body and concluded that there were no signs of beatings or torture. Otto's teeth were in good shape and there were no significant scars or bone fractures. One significant clue was that there were signs that both sides of Otto's brain had been starved simultaneously of oxygen, which would have led to his vegetative state.
So what did happen? It has since been revealed that Warmbier was hospitalized a day after his court appearance for sentencing, when he appeared to be a state of extreme emotional distress. He could have suffered a heart attack, which could have quickly cut off oxygen to the brain. Another possibility is that Warmbier tried to commit suicide by hanging himself, which also would have resulted in brain damage.
The circumstances surrounding Warmbier's injuries are important since they have since played a role in the state of U.S.-North Korean relations. The highly emotional allegations that he had been tortured contributed to the increased tensions between Washington and Pyongyang in 2017. The U.S. Congress cited Warmbier's case in tightening sanctions against North Korea and led the Trump administration to revive the designation of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. Last December, a U.S. federal court ruled that North Korea should pay the Warmbier family more than $500 million.
But the decision by Trump to reverse course in 2018 and seek improved ties with North Korea has now led the administration to play down the Warmbier case, while the episode continues to be seized upon by critics of that reconciliation policy.
While North Korea should be held fully responsible for the circumstances of Warmbier's death, the misrepresentation of the facts in the case should not be used to derail a possible diplomatic solution to end Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs.
John Burton (email@example.com), a former Korea correspondent for the Financial Times, is now a Washington, D.C.-based journalist and consultant.