Otto Warmbier. I can’t get this tragedy out of my head.
There’s been more than our fair share of the horrific multiple shootings, where mass killings have resulted in unspeakable sadness. It seems like one 24-hour news cycle just hands off another unspeakable incident to the next cycle.
But why this story? A young American man allegedly (and stupidly) tries to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel wall in North Korea and is sent home over a year later in a persistent vegetative state, only to die six days later.
My first reaction? Why would anyone want to even visit North Korea in the first place? This is a country known for its city-sized internment camps. People have no free speech. Its citizens are starving. Its brutal regime has designed a system where killing and deprivation are used.
We read, belatedly, the North Korean regime’s claim that Warmbier, 22, from Wyoming, Ohio, was in a coma due to a combination of botulism and a sleeping pill. However, a persistent vegetative state, according to medical officials, is often caused by cardiopulmonary arrest that results in an inadequate supply of blood to the brain. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center told reporters they believe the injury occurred sometime in the weeks prior to April 2016, more than a year before his release.
On CBS News, his father, Fred Warmbier, said he does not believe North Korea’s explanation that the coma resulted from these two items. He added there was no reason for North Korea to keep his 22-year-old son’s condition a secret and deny him top medical care.
North Korea said it released him for humanitarian reasons, but state-run Korean Central News Agency on Thursday did not comment on his medical condition. Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for an investigation into what happened to Warmbier.
Richardson, a Democrat, credited the State Department with securing Warmbier’s return from North Korea without any preconditions, but said a forceful response from the U.S. government would be required “if it’s determined that there was a cover-up and Otto’s condition was not disclosed and he didn’t get proper treatment.”
Otto’s heartbroken parents will be changed forever. The film of Warmbier pleading for leniency in a so-called North Korean court, where he presented a far-fetched, nonsensical explanation (to American ears) as to why he stole a propaganda poster, also presents a lasting image. But of all these images of Warmbier, the ones sticking with me are those of this apparently vibrant young man being carried off of a Medevac jet when he was returned to Ohio.
In North Korea we see a regime oozing in propaganda’s puss with its dangerous ruler Kim Jong-un, whose idea of “humanitarian reasons” is to send an otherwise healthy American home in a coma leading to his death. Certainly, this is just a scratch on the surface of what the “supreme leader” is doing to his own people.
And we have to fear him—because he’s by all signals working on missile systems that could deliver a nuclear bomb to the United States. There are millions of South Koreans he could potentially kill with conventional weapons.
Unresponsive wakefulness? That’s how Otto’s doctors described his condition.
Unresponsive Godlessness. That’s how North Korea can best be described.
We’ve suffered with Israel through the Gilad Shalit captivity, and watched as he returned, skeletal, emaciated and shadowy. Among our great concerns is the kidnap of IDF personnel or even Israeli citizens by the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas. So we’ve seen the story of a prisoner return before.
As Americans, we watched in horror as Iran’s regime, certainly known for its own share of brutality on its own citizenry, held U.S. sailors prisoner as if they had committed a war crime when their craft drifted into the country’s waters.
This makes me think, hard. It makes me reevaluate the last eight years of engagement, white-glove diplomacy. Why was it that the Obama administration remained so quiet and knocked itself out to appease North Korea and Iran? Whether you like or dislike Donald Trump, he got through to a place where Americans have no sway, and was able to return Otto to his parents. It’s cold comfort, but at least the parents could spend his final days with him.
The United States, the world’s only superpower, must amp up its sanctions against these regimes that regularly violate the human rights of its citizens and visitors, be they labeled North Korea, ISIS or Hamas or other provocateurs of terror.
But even now, no sanctions will bring back Otto. I can’t get Otto Warmbier out of my head.
By Phil Jacobs