By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Walk down the corridor at any dormitory at any university campus in the land. One of the things you are sure to see more often than not, are sign that says “Men working” or “No Parking” or “Deer crossing” and many others. These directions are found on signs carefully “liberated” by students out on treasure hunts. The signs are considered wampum, and most college students at some point or other have lifted one or more to decorate their dormitory room. The more rare the direction the more prized they sign.
Now, technically the students know this is theft. Technically, the universities know it too. But no one makes a big deal out of it. It is just something kids do during their college years. Steal things and then post them in their dormitory rooms. It is like wearing eagle feathers in their war bonnets.
Otto Warmbier came out of this tradition, and so when he went to North Korea as part of a special trip for Westerners, he probably didn’t think a great deal about lifting a sign that was in the corridor of the hotel where he was staying. The sign said “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!” He certainly never thought it would be much of an issue. After all, why do people go to North Korea in the first place? Because it is dangerous. Because they want to come back to his home in Ohio. They want to come back to their homes with tales a plenty, tales for life.
Close to the case
I feel very close to the Warmbier case. In 1968, I was 20 year old and en route to Poland, which was then under the control of the Communist regime of Wladyslaw Gomulka. Gomulka was a very nasty character and Poland was in deep distress at that time. The Communist Party still ruled, and any action against the regime could result in torture or even death.
I was living in London at the time; Like Otto, I wanted to see the world. So a friend and I signed up for a trip offered by the Young Pioneers of Poland. You may not know what a Pioneer is but in those days Pioneers were the young Communists. These were the equivalent of the Communist Boy Scouts. Only the behavior wasn’t very Scout like.
We paid a 150 Pounds to go from London to Zakopane in the south of Poland. The trip was strikingly successfully even although it was billed as a ski-trip. Uncoordinated as I am I didn’t see much time on the ski-slopes except looking up from the ground, head in a drift. However, at the end of the trip which was in January my friend and I decided that we wanted to go to Warsaw to take a good look around the capital. This was not included in the tour price. Nothing daunted we simply got on one of the state railways and rode illegally (First Class no less) from Zakopane to Warsaw. No one stopped us. This was quite an extensive trip involving as it did, traversing the entire country of Poland.
Well, we bluffed our way through to get to Warsaw. Ticket collectors would come to us. We’d pretend we didn’t understand them- which we didn’t because we didn’t speak a word of Polish. The point was that we did this deed of daring-do without having a penny for it or even considering it might be dangerous. We thought it was the greatest hoot of our lives. The danger only added to the spice. I tell you this because American college students then and now haven’t changed that much. They want to one-up their friends when they are travelling. To go to the Eiffel Tower is nothing but to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower in a balloon is everything.
Now, I cannot get into the head of the deceased student Otto Warmbier. But I can tell you this, I can picture the scene in Pyongyang that evening when he arrived. He travelled with 10 members on this trip organized by the North Korean Pioneers.
Otto saw in the corridor a sign and I know that he immediately thought hmm, I want this to go on my bedroom in Ohio. It would have made indeed a wonderful addition. Needless to say North Koreans didn’t see it this way. What Otto did was this; he got to the hotel. He saw this sign with its provocative pro-regime message; a message one of-course never sees in Ohio outside of history books and documentaries. He then decided to take it down and keep it. Well, he got it off the wall; then discovered that he couldn’t fold it or easily carry it away. So he took it down to the staff floor in the hotel and left it.
This was all captured in film, because of course being a Communist regime there was tight control run by control freaks. The people who were watching the television screen saw what he did and immediately called in the authorities who promptly arrested him at the airport as he was ready to leave.
The tour guide, Danny Gratton, reported later that Otto didn’t resist and went away with the authorities with a half-smile on his lips, no visible fear, possibly even thinking what a great story it would be when he was back in Ohio telling this tale. And so it might have been had not the North Koreans lost their sense of proportion, something always in short supply.
At no time in the proceedings was Otto Warmbier guilty of anything other than bad judgment. He didn’t curse. He didn’t scream. He didn’t cry. He didn’t try to escape. He didn’t make a fuss. He simply cooperated after all he was bringing to the situation an American outlook. He was behaving in a polite Ohion way because he was sure that he would be out within hours possibly a day or two if the things went longer than expected. And then something went terribly wrong.
Many people know what this is. I am not one of them. You are not going to be one of them either because the people who know are not telling. But I can guess, Otto went uncomplainingly along with the guards and was locked up in a cell. At this point no charges had been brought against him and his mood would have been relatively light. However this all changed quickly.
In the event, he went before a judge, and this is where the bombshell occurred. The judge sentenced him in January 2016 to 15 years of hard labor for the “hostile act”, trying to steal a propaganda poster off the wall at his hotel.
Now think for a moment. Here is a Ohio boy, dressed in Ohio clothes, with a Ohio mentality; no doubt very polite as Ohio boys tend to be. In his eyes he had done nothing wrong, and he was no doubt flabbergasted by the position in which he now found himself.
Why did the regime decide to hit Otto Warmbier with a haymaker, especially at a time when it seemed both the US and North Korea were inching towards a thaw, no matter how slight? No one who is in a position to talk is talking and every day that goes by everyone wants this Otto matter to be silenced.
To err is human
Why? Because one mistake beget another. His captors in a short snippet of film show Otto’s North Korean guards dragging him across the court like a bag of potatoes. Otto looks like a complete and total vegetable, head down no evidence he knows where he is or what is happening. Clearly he did not expect this. No one expected it. But the judge delivered this brutal sentence which probably followed roughing up or worse. I suspect that is what happened. Was he manhandled by some prison guards? Who of course do not have Ohio manners and do not approach their task in a polite and courtly fashion.
They had this hot potato named Otto. He was there; they didn’t know what to do with him. So they probably victimized even tortured him. One thing led to another and all of a sudden there was brain damage, massive brain damage. I imagine this occurred fairly early before any outside authority could be called into the case.
The judge said 15 years. Who told him to say that? How much leeway did he have? Was he being briefed by someone? The regime had a nasty problem on its hands now. They had gone beyond any reasonable kind of punishment. If any punishment in this case; what would have been reasonable?
They had abused Otto. After all he was the prime witness. To cover up what they had done they needed to kill him. A dead Otto was preferable from Pyongyang’s point of view, because a live Otto would have told exactly what had happened, and they didn’t want to have that. So, they covered it up. They kept the brain dead body with all the brutal evidence on his body for what they had done to him. They needed time to prepare the body so there would be no evidence.
It would have been best from the North Koreans standpoint if he had died “naturally” and quickly but they could hold out for a while. Then some bright light in the North Korean government decided that they want the body out and wanted him to die outside North Korea. Anywhere but Pyongyang.
And so the case of Otto Warmbier continued to galvanize people’s attention in the government. What to do with Otto became the persistent question. And what was done with him of course was hours literally couple of days before he died. The body which was now not so much piece of evidence as something appalling which had to be removed from North Korea, everybody had to stay quiet. Nobody wanted to rock the boat.
The real problem of this case was first of all who ordered the beating of Otto? Because I am sure at the very beginning he was beaten in a prescribed North Korean fashion. Who ordered that?
Who ordered the judge to give the 15 year sentence? Because I imagine that sentence was not given by the judge spontaneously but was the result of the government intervention. What benefit would there have been?
Meanwhile Ottos’s body continued to be a silent witness. He was still technically alive but in no position to testify and as soon as the North Korean government decided that there were no telltale wounds on the body and that it was too late for an autopsy. No scabbing of past injuries. As soon as they were certain that the body offered no grounds for accusation against the regime, they got rid of the body.
Now, we have a problem in Washington. The United States government has been trying to build bridges with North Korea. President Trump even offered to go to North Korea to advance things. Now, Otto’s lifeless body was a menace to that. Something had to be done. Poor old Otto; the boy who started the whole thing off, simply by stealing a sign in a prescribed Ohio fraternity boy fashion. His body lay silent. An accusation to everyone involved in the case.
Why had the United States government moved so slowly? Why didn’t they know more about his medical condition? Why didn’t they insist on medical intervention earlier in the case and on and on… The questions are blurring.
It comes to a point where yesterdays’ front page news which is what the Otto story was becomes today’s eighth page news which is where today’s Otto story is today.
June 22nd 2017, today is his funeral where everyone involved just simply wants closure. No more questions. No more accusations. No more evidence. No more speculation. Simply silence. They want the case of Otto Warmbier to be truly buried.
I am here to offer a candle in Otto’s memory. The pictures of him show exactly what he should have been in age 22; bright, clever, a charmer, a bit of wicked wit and high jinx about the boy. The boy who will now never know the joy of marriage, the joy of children, the joy of getting old and cracking jokes on the veranda. All these were denied to him because he became involved in what is probably a human error compounded by other humans trying to cover up. It is a sad story and it is a story that happens every day around the world, the most often of all in North Korea a brutal, stupid, thoughtless, menacing regime.
It involves government officials coming together. They want closure. They want this case to be over and move on and forget Otto. Let’s not do that this time. Let’s remember him as the attractive young man that he was; who made what by any standard anywhere else besides North Korea, that labyrinth of menace was a small mistake that cost him his life. And I say this as we put this matter to rest and continue our talks with North Korea. Let’s never forget this young man. Let’s never forget what North Korea did to him and is capable of.
Let’s also never forget that human error above all is the greatest error that could be imagined and it was human error and stupidity as much as anything else which caused this boy to die. There are now 3 additional Americans in North Korean prisons and one Canadian. Let us not forget the Canadian. I urge President Trump to get on the phone and call Pyongyang and say it would be a kind gesture to let those people go and stay on the case. Otto is dead but there are four lives which could still be saved with prompt intervention. We want the North Koreans to know that what they did was unacceptable. If they wish to be part of the community of nations they must learn our ways. We know their ways; they are the ways of brutality, terror, and random pain. We don’t need to learn theirs, they need to learn ours.
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.