Otto Warmbier, a young 22 year old from University of Virginia, was visiting North Korea in 2016 on a sightseeing tour to experience the remote country first hand.
It was a trip that would end in tragedy, with Otto suffering an unexpected and devastating fate, as he was detained in the country and kept in captivity for 17 months.
Questions have been raised ever since as to why was he in the country in the first place and what he was doing in North Korea?
The exact reasons are still unknown, but it is thought that Otto Warmbier’s decision to visit the country stemmed from its secret nature, the elusive and limited information available on it and the lure of wanting to have his own unique experience.
Japan and South Korea are two of the most popular tourist destinations for young people, so it is not uncommon for travelers to seek experiences further afield and discover the unknown. This may well have been the case for Otto Warmbier.
North Korea has a history of detaining people on charges of espionage and subversion, and there is speculation that Otto Warmbier was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.
By his own admission, even at the trial he was forced to participate in during his imprisonment, his visit to North Korea was purely tourism related and he was in no way involved in any political activism.
In fact, it is thought that his detainment was part of a tactic used by the North Korean regime of demanding concessions in return for the release of foreign nationals as part of its human diplomacy.
Why Did Otto Warmbier Go to North Korea?
The exact motives behind why Otto Warmbier chose to visit North Korea will never be known, but what we can be sure of is that it was a decision that would have a lasting, catastrophic impact on his life.
As a student of foreign policy and political science, recent graduate and avid traveler, Otto may have been curious to explore a region with a unique history and complex political landscape and look beyond the limiting news and information available.
With North Korea’s oppressive government discouraging tourism and international travel, a trip there might have seemed the ultimate challenge and adventure. Despite all the warnings surrounding the dangers of travelling to North Korea, this may have been an opportunity Otto simply couldn’t resist.
Otto was a highly intelligent man and a larger than life character who was never one to shy away from a challenge. A trip to North Korea may have been seen as just another challenge on an already long list.
In addition, trips to North Korea are now becoming increasingly popular and are widely marketed by private tourist companies, who may have played a role in encouraging Warmbier’s visit.
What Happened During Otto’s Time in North Korea?
Very little is known about what happened to Otto Warmbier during the time he spent in North Korea, however it is thought that he was subjected to physical and psychological torture from the moment he was arrested.
It is believed he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to take a propaganda poster from his hotel as a souvenir, an action he later admitted to as part of his false confession at the trial.
The physical and psychological impact of his detainment, torture and confinement for more 17 months is something Otto’s family and the world will never know.
North Korea said Otto suffered from a heart attack soon after his trial and fell into a coma. He was released from the country in 2017 in a comatose state but passed away shortly afterwards.
Reports have since emerged of his mistreatment and torture, with witnesses testifying to his brutal physical beatings and emaciated condition.
His family has since set up the Otto Warmbier Foundation, a nonprofit organization to serve as a living tribute to raise awareness to the human rights violations suffered by Otto and others in North Korea.
What Was Otto’s Life Like Before North Korea?
Otto Warmbier was born in December 1994 in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was the son of successful business owners Fred and Cindy Warmbier.
He graduated in 2013 from Wyoming High School, where he attended since second grade, and was an active student, participating in organization and extracurricular activities such as debate club and church leadership.
After graduating he attended the University of Virginia and went on to become an alumnus of the prestigious Tillman Scholar programme.
Otto’s life was one of immense opportunity, full of learning new skills and expanding his knowledge. He was an avid traveler and thrill seeker, who was daring enough to take risks and challenge himself.
What Lacking Regulations Existed for Travelling to North Korea?
At the time of Otto Warmbier’s visit to North Korea, there were very few regulations in place for travelers to the secretive nation, and what there were had limited scope.
When the US released its travel advisory in 2016 regarding the dangers of traveling to North Korea, the warnings were largely dismissed as the risk seemed unlikely and few US citizens traveled there on a regular basis so it was not of a great concern.
Today, however, the advisory is more severe, with the US, UK and Australia all advising citizens against travelling to North Korea and the US banning all its citizens from visiting.
In addition, there is now a much greater awareness of the risks associated with travelling to the country and heightened security checks in place.
What Has Been the Response to Otto’s Death?
People across the world were shocked by the news of Otto Warmbier’s detainment and the horrific circumstances surrounding it.
The Trump Administration and the international community were quick to call for his release, and there were ongoing negotiations between the North Korean government and the US
Ultimately, however, it was too late. The pressures and stresses of his imprisonment were too great and it had an irreversible impact on his health.
In the years that follow, Otto’s death and the human rights abuses in North Korea have become an increasingly pressing issue and a big issue in US foreign policy.
In the US, Otto’s death has led to increased pressure on the Trump Administration to implement stricter sanctions against North Korea, and calls have been made to ensure this never happens again.
What Is the Future of Tourism in North Korea?
It is likely that international tourism in North Korea will never be the same as it once was.
The world has become increasingly aware of the dangers involved in travelling to North Korea, and the US and other governments are in the process of implementing policies to discourage any potential travel.
The Otto Warmbier Foundation is also making an important contribution in this regard, by raising awareness of the risks of travel to North Korea.
It is therefore unlikely that any tourists will venture to North Korea for the foreseeable future, and responsible companies are increasingly becoming aware of this.
How Has Otto’s Story Impacted North Korea?
Otto Warmbier’s story has had a deep and profound effect on North Korea. The U.S., other countries have reacted to his detainment with sanctions and diplomatic pressure.
The public outrage sparked by his death has also brought attention to the issue of human rights in the country and has led to renewed calls for an end to the regime’s oppressive powers and abuses of its own citizens.
Otto’s story has also prompted a shift in attitudes towards the country, with more and more people now aware of the dangers associated with travelling to North Korea.
It has also served as a stark reminder that while the rest of the world is aware of the dangers posed by North Korea, its citizens continue to suffer in silence.
What Are the Current Regulations on Travelling to North Korea?
Today, the US, UK and Australia all advise citizens against travelling to North Korea, and most other countries strictly regulate their citizens’ travel there. The US has since banned any of its citizens from travelling to North Korea.
The US, UK, and other nations have all issued stern warnings to those considering travelling to North Korea, and governments across the globe have begun to implement stricter travel regulations.
In particular, North Korea is becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the world, with governments actively discouraging any travel to the country and increasing security checks for those who do.
In addition, due to the risk associated with travelling to North Korea, many international airlines now refuse to fly there.
What Is the Legacy of Otto Warmbier?
Otto Warmbier’s legacy is one of a brave young man who’s life was tragically cut short at the hands of an oppressive regime.
However, his story has also served to raise global awareness of the dangers posed by North Korea and re-kindle an international conversation about human rights in the country.
It has also served as an important reminder of the need for caution when travelling to foreign countries and the importance of taking into consideration all the risks involved.
The Otto Warmbier Foundation has also been instrumental in keeping his memory alive and in spreading their message of human rights and justice.