Otto Warmbier, US student sent home from North Korea, dies

Otto Warmbier

“I recall the time I thought I was going to be arrested in North Korea”

By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST News Service

CINCINNATI, OHIO (ANS – June 19, 2017) — The American student who was released last week after being held in captivity for more than 15 months in North Korea has died, his family says.

Otto Warmbier, 22, returned to the US last Tuesday, but it emerged he had been in a coma for a year.

The BBC says that North Korea claimed that botulism led to the coma, but a team of US doctors who assessed him dispute this account.

Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel, where I once stayed.

He had suffered severe brain damage, and was medically evacuated from North Korea on June 13, 2017, to a hospital in his home city of Cincinnati. Ohio. It is unclear how he fell ill.

The Warmbier family has blamed his death on torture that they say he suffered in North Korea.

“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 2:20pm,” a statement from his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said.

The statement said the student had been “unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands.”

“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,” it added.

What was medically wrong with Otto Warmbier?

His parents only discovered his medical situation in the days leading up to his release.

Shortly before he was freed, they told the Washington Post that they had been informed by the North Korean authorities that their son had contracted botulism, a rare illness that causes paralysis, soon after his trial in March 2016.

He was given a sleeping pill and had been in a coma ever since, the newspaper said.

But a team of doctors assessing him in Cincinnati said they had found “no sign of botulism” in the student.

“His neurological condition can be best described as a state of unresponsive wakefulness,” said Dr. Daniel Kanter.

Doctors also confirmed that there was no sign he had been physically abused during his detention, based on scans.

Who was he?

The economics student from the University of Virginia was travelling in North Korea as a tourist when he was arrested on January 2, 2016.

He appeared emotional at a news conference a month later, in which he tearfully confessed to trying to take the sign as a “trophy” for a US church, adding: “The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.”

Foreign detainees in North Korea have previously recanted confessions, saying they were made under pressure.

North Korea said it had released Mr. Warmbier “on humanitarian grounds.”

The time that I thought that I was going to be arrested in North Korea

After hearing the sad news today, memories came flooding back to me of the time I was “bugged” in North Korea’s largest hotel, and constantly peppered with questions by “minders” as I traveled around the world’s most secretive country. I even thought I could be arrested at any moment because of my reporting activities while I was there.

I had joined a small delegation of Christians, led by Dr. David Cho, a Korean pastor who had formed an unlikely friendship with Kim Il-sung, the country’s despotic leader, having known his Christian mother. Cho had been invited to bring in another a delegation, of which I was to be a part. But then “Great Leader” died and it seemed that the trip would not occur. But then, and after the lavish state funeral, we were told that the trip was on again, and we became the first group to enter the country following his death.

I had not expected to be staying in such a huge hotel when I arrived in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital city, on the first day of my trip. It was the twin-towered Koryo Hotel, which at 469 feet, is one of the tallest buildings in Pyongyang. In fact, it is a major landmark there.

Only three of us — Dr. Cho, Michael Little from CBN and myself — were initially granted visas, and then Dr. Charles Wickman, a then board member of ASSIST, was able to join us shortly afterwards.

When we arrived at the huge and impressive Koryo Hotel and were checking in, I noticed a crack in a nearby door and saw some men wearing headphones with tape machines whiriing, apparently listening to visitors on concealed miniature microphones in order to monitor and/or record people’s conversations.

Immediately, I was alerted the team that our rooms, telephones, and the places where we would eat, almost certainly had bugs planted. To add to the surreal atmosphere in the lobby, there was an auto-piano playing hits from the Beatles, and “All you need is love,” was the first song that we heard.

Before I had entered North Korea, I had called Bill Clough, the then UPI Radio Network’s Religion Editor in Washington, DC, and he immediately said, “Dan, if you get into the country, please do a daily story for us.” (I had been doing a weekly commentary for the UPI Radio Network for several years about religious persecution, and that’s how we knew each other.)

Clough said that each story would be recorded over the phone by a colleague in Beijing who would call my room, record my story, and then forward it onto him. When I mentioned the possibility of the North Koreans listening into my stories from the hotel room’s phone, he said, “I’ve got a solution. When he calls you, just say, ‘Say hello to Bill’s mother in Amarillo,” which would alert our UPI man not to ask questions, but just record my piece. Fortunately, he did just that, and my stories got stronger each day, mainly because, hopefully, I thought I would soon be able to safely leave the country.

During meal-times, even though there were only about 10 guests in the entire hotel, we were ushered each time to the same table in the massive restaurant. We all noticed that there was a flower pot on it, in which, we assumed, was hidden a microphone. So, we kept our mealtime discussions down to a minimum.

Each day, during that week, we would be ferried around the country to places like the DMZ, a film studio, the home of a North Korean family, who extolled how wonderful it was to live in such a “paradise” as North Korea, and during each trip, a “minder” would sit next to us and pepper us with questions about life in America, and what we thought of its leaders.

Then, each morning, a call would come into my room from the UPI man in Beijing, and as I was convinced I was being listened to and recorded, I would say the code words about Bill’s mother in Amarillo, and then read my story that my colleague would record and then send onto Bill Clough.

As the week progressed, my stories became more critical of the North Korean regime, and I would then leave my room for breakfast, and look around in case I was arrested for what I had just been saying.

One day, I even recounted the story of visiting a film studio that was resplendent with the sayings of Kim Jong-il, the new leader of the country, and the son of Kim Jong-Il. When I asked my “minder” what one of them said, he replied, “The ‘Dear Leader’ says, ‘When you turn on your movie camera, don’t forget to put some film in it.’” I had problems holding back my laughter, especially as my “minder” thought what he had said was quite profound.

Another day, I recounted our trip to a North Korean church, which we never found out if it was a real one, or whether the pastor and congregation were actors, all playing a role for their visitors, in a bid to show that there was religious freedom in North Korea.

I also talked about our visit to the DMZ, where we were told that America “started the Korean War”, and we were then shown round a museum full of horrific pictures of atrocities that our guide claimed were committed by American soldiers.

After a week of wondering if I would get a tap on my shoulder in the very hotel where Otto Warmbier was later arrested, and I would be incarcerated and put on trial for my critical broadcasts, we packed our bags and were ferried back to Pyongyang Airport, and soon we were winging our way back to Beijing — and relative safety.

It was certainly a trip to remember and, looking back, I realize that I was skating on thin ice with some of my broadcasts. I had prayed a lot for protection during that week, and when I finally arrived back on American soil, and was reunited with my wife, Norma, I thanked God for protecting me, despite myself, from a brutal regime.

Otto Warmbier was not so fortunate!

Note: If you would like to interview Dan Wooding about the above story, please send him an e-mail at with details of which media outlet you represent.

Photo captions: 1) Otto Warmbier bows before the court in Noth Korea. 2) Otto in brought before the media in North Korea. 3) Fred Warmbier speaking at a press conference on his son’s return. 4) The twin-towered Koryo Hotel where Dan stayed. 5) Michael Little and Dan Wooding with a North Korea guide at the DMZ. 6) Dan Wooding with some of the team members in a North Korea “church”.7) Dr. David Cho and Dan Wooding in North Korea.

About the writer: Dan Wooding, 76, is an award-winning journalist who was born in Nigeria of British missionary parents, Alfred and Anne Wooding from Liverpool, now living in Southern California with his wife Norma, to whom he has been married for 54 years. They have two sons, Andrew and Peter, and six grandchildren who all live in the UK. He has a radio show and TV shows all based in Southern California, and has also authored some 45 books, and is one of the few Christian journalists to ever be allowed to report from inside of North Korea.

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