By Kimball Cariou


The tragic death of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old student from Wyoming who died in June 2017 continues to be raised by some as an argument against reconciliation between the U.S. and the DPRK.

The U.S. student had been on a tourist trip to the DPRK when he was charged and sentenced for committing an "anti-DPRK hostile act" in January 2016. A few months later, according to Korean authorities, Warmbier became ill through botulism, and fell into a coma, or more accurately "
a state of unresponsive wakefulness". In such a state, a person is unable to respond to commands, move or respond to stimulus, although that person can yawn, sleep on cycle and breathe without mechanical assistance. Clinical studies suggest some people can be roused from a state of unresponsive wakefulness, but everything depends on the level of damage to the brain.

In June 2017, Warmbier was released on sick bail and returned on a U.S. plane, to Cleveland, Ohio. He was treated at the University of Cincinnati, but died a week later without recovering from the coma.

Four months later, on October 10, 2017, several American doctors submitted a “medical observation” to a federal district court in Washington D.C., claiming that he had died of torture, and alleging that "his teeth were dislocated and his gum bone damaged by physical force from outside".

Nikki Haley, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations (soon to step down from that post) has jumped on the case, calling North Korea an "evil place" where Otto Warmbier was tortured to death.

Speaking to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Oct. 27, 2018, Kim Song-hui, the director of the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital, said "I cannot repress my indignation over the American total distortion of the truth regarding (Warmbier's) death."

Kim Song-hui points to a USA Today article, printed on June 21, 2017, in the Cincinnati Enquirer, in which doctors at the University of Cincinnati (UC) state that they found no trace of physical abuses like bone fracture or internal organ injury.

The article quotes
Dr. Daniel Kanter, a UC Health neuroscientist, stating that Otto Warmbier had received good medical care in the DPRK, surviving while unable to communicate or move for 14 months, and arriving home in a “well-nourished” condition.

Kanter was able to review contemporaneous medical records from Warmbier's period of imprisonment, and conducted MRI tests. He said Warmbier’s injury most likely occurred because his heart stopped, cutting off oxygen to the brain. Kanter said that botulism might have damaged his heart and lungs, but any trace of botulism would not have lived in his body after 14 months.

Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, the coroner of Hamilton County, Ohio, reported that no autopsy was performed, at the Warmbier family’s request. In her statement, Dr. Sammarco wrote, “No conclusions about the cause and manner of Mr. Warmbier’s death have been drawn at this time as there are additional medical records and imaging to review and people to interview".

Her postmortem examination did not indicate the young man’s teeth had been disfigured. “The teeth are natural and in good repair,” the report said, and his nose and ears show “no remarkable alteration.”

Despite these findings, a vicious anti-DPRK campaign began in the United States. But there are
more questions than certainties about this case. Despite the torture accusations by U.S. politicians, the extensive medical examination of Otto Warmbier when he arrived in Ohio would certainly have found evidence of such claims. It's also puzzling that after his death the student's family requested that no autopsy be performed.

Are the accusations based on political grounds rather than medical evidence? It's interesting to recall that the initial attacks against the DPRK around this case, during the summer and fall of 2017, coincided with President Trump's threats to completely destroy the country. It was only several months later that relations thawed, leading to the Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un last June.

Since the Summit, the anti-DPRK campaign has not stopped, with a constant stream of accusations from political leaders and some media outlets seeking to rouse public anger. Warmbier's family continues to demand that the DPRK be treated as a "terrorist state," and has launched a wrongful death suit against the DPRK.

But in the absence of any factual evidence to back up the accusations of torture, one can only conclude that this case is political in nature. Certainly the best way to overcome the longstanding tensions in the region is to continue the process of dialogue and de-escalation of military confrontations, leading towards the eventual reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Attempts to demonize the DPRK move in the opposite direction, back towards threats of a war which would have devastating consequences for all Koreans, for east Asia, and even the entire planet.


(The above article is from the November 16-30, 2018, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)