Why Did Otto Go To North Korea

Otto’s Detention & Trial

Otto Warmbier, a 21 year-old student and American citizen, was arrested on 2 January 2016 in Pyongyang airport while on holiday. He had been accused of trying to steal a political banner as a “trophy” for an Ohio church and held for 17 months in detention, before being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016.

The reason for his captivity has been subject to much controversy. Otto’s father, Fred Warmbier, viewed the proceedings as a “show trial”, in which North Korean officials wanted to show that they could arrest a foreigner at will. Meanwhile North Korean state media argued that his arrest was perfectly legal and that Otto was a pawn of hostile American forces looking to destabilize the country.

Joseph Bermudez, an expert on North Korean affairs, believes that Otto’s detention had a different purpose. In an interview with The Guardian, Bermudez argued that Otto’s arrest was likely an attempt by the North Korean government to gain leverage in their negotiations with the US. This theory adds an interesting layer of complexity to the situation.

Otto’s family attempted to secure his release over the course of his incarceration. In June 2018, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Pyongyang, and succeeded in securing Otto’s release. It is unclear whether any form of payment was made for Otto’s release by either the US or his family

Upon his return, Otto was completely unresponsive, in a persistent vegetative state, having suffered serious neurological damage. It was later determined that he had been forced to take a sleeping tablet and fell into a coma while in detention. He died in 2018 at the age of 22, leaving his family devastated.

North Korea’s Human Rights Violation

Otto’s sad story has drawn attention to North Korea’s dire human rights situation. North Korea has consistently been condemned by international organizations and its own citizens for its harsh restrictions on freedom of speech, freedom of movement and its unequal access to medical care.

The Human Rights Watch has documented multiple instances of persecuted activists and political prisoners, including the case of Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped from a labor camp at the age of 21. It’s no surprise then that Otto’s detention sparked outrage among civil society activists and human rights organizations.

The US government responded to Otto’s detention by pushing for more sanctions against North Korea, including restrictions on travel, economic sanctions and people-to-people exchanges.

The United Nations has also implemented a human rights resolution, calling for North Korea to improve its human rights situation and release political prisoners, including those detained on “unspecified charges”. The resolution further called for North Korea to allow international observers to investigate Otto’s case and others like it.

Issues Over Guantanamo Bay And North Korea

Aside from the human rights violations in North Korea, there are also concerns about the US government’s involvement in Otto’s case. As the American authorities had tried to negotiate Otto’s release, some observers have wondered if there has been a trade-off between Otto’s freedom and an easing of the US trade embargo against North Korea.

The United States has also been accused of double standards by human rights activists and experts in international law. While the US government is pushing for greater sanctions and human rights protections in North Korea, it is also refusing to close the Guantanamo Bay prison and has recently come under fire for its mistreatment of migrants at the US/Mexico border.

Critics point out that the US is using its position of power to punish more politically vulnerable governments for human rights abuses, while systematically failing to address its own.

Politics Of Otto’s Detention

Critics have argued that Otto’s detention had little to do with North Korean security concerns and more to do with domestic North Korean politics. North Korea is a highly authoritarian state and any perceived threat to the regime is swiftly punished. Otto’s detention was used as an opportunity to show that the North Korean authorities could detain anyone at will.

Some observers believe that North Korea also used Otto’s case to make a statement to the United States, as a response to the Obama administration’s hard line stance against North Korea. By detaining an American citizen, North Korea demonstrated its ability to cause harm to American interests, something the US government took seriously.

This theory was further corroborated by the US government’s efforts to secure Otto’s release, in a process which involved multiple rounds of negotiations, both behind the scenes and in high-level diplomatic talks.

Cultural And Social Impact

Otto’s imprisonment and death have had a far-reaching cultural and social impact. His story has been shared around the world and has been widely used as an example of North Korea’s disregard for human rights and its systematic oppression of political dissent.

Otto’s death has also prompted an emotional response from the international community, with many people coming out in support of Otto’s family. His story has been used to highlight the plight of political prisoners in North Korea and has been used as a rallying cry for increased human rights protections in the region.

Otto’s case has also been used as an example of the dangers of traveling to North Korea, with many countries strongly advising their citizens not to visit the country. This has had a hard impact on North Korea’s already poor tourism industry, something Otto’s family has said they regret.

Economic Impact

The repercussions of Otto’s imprisonment have had a significant economic impact as well. North Korea is already subject to a raft of international sanctions due to its nuclear weapons program. This has further curtailed the country’s already-limited access to international markets and capital, leading to a deepening economic crisis.

Since Otto’s arrest, North Korea has been facing additional sanctions from the United Nations, the European Union and the United States. This has caused further hardship for North Korean citizens and further reduced the country’s economic prospects.

These additional sanctions, combined with the dramatic drop in tourism to the country, has had a significant impact on the economy, with some analysts arguing that the economic isolation of North Korea is having its intended effect.


Otto’s story is a tragic reminder of the harsh realities of North Korea’s totalitarian rule. It is a stark reminder of the power of political prisoners, who are often used as pawns in diplomatic negotiations. It is also an example of the power of international sanctions, and how they can be used to punish regimes that violate human rights.

Otto’s story has also highlighted the dangers of traveling to North Korea. While it can be a fascinating place, it is important to remember that visitors are taking a risk and should take all the necessary precautions to ensure their safety.

Cassie Grissom is an American journalist and author living in Seoul, South Korea. She has been studying the Korean peninsula since 2011, and her work focuses on understanding human rights issues in North Korea. In addition to her work as an author, Cassie is an active advocate for human rights in North Korea. She regularly shares stories about life in North Korea with international audiences to raise awareness of the plight of its citizens.

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