At worst, the American college student stole a banner as a souvenir – a prank by any measure elsewhere except North Korea – and paid for it with his life.
- Accused of stealing a political banner
- Sentenced to 15 years hard labour
- Released after 17 months in detention
- Medically evacuated in a coma
- Cause of brain damage and death still unknown
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier booked a five-day cultural tour to North Korea with Chinese company Young Pioneer Tours for late December 2015.
After completing the tour, he was detained at the airport on his way out of the country to Beijing on Jan 2, 2016.
A state-run news agency released a short, grainy video with a shadowy, unrecognisable figure that was said to show Warmbier stealing a banner from a wall in his hotel.
Pyongyang alleged that he had stolen a political banner and claimed that Warmbier was perpetrating a hostile act against the country after entering it under the guise of tourist.
On Feb 29, 2016, Warmbier apologised in a public confession that may have been forcibly staged by the North Korean government.
He said that a member of his Ohio church had promised him a $10,000 used car for the act and that he had been further encouraged by one of his college’s secret societies, the Z Society.
Warmbier said, “I beg that you see how I was used and manipulated” and “I was used by the United States administration like many before.”
On Mar 16, 2016, Warmbier was convicted in an hour-long trial and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour.
What happened to Warmbier after that might never be known outside the reclusive country.
Pyongyang said that shortly after his sentencing, he had lapsed into a coma after contracting botulism and being given a sleeping pill.
He was held for more than 17 months and released last week. Medically evacuated from North Korea, he returned to the US with severe brain damage.
Doctors who examined him said there was no sign of botulism in his system but they could not pinpoint what caused the brain damage.
They could find no evidence of him being mistreated but said he appeared to have extensive brain damage caused by a prolonged loss of blood flow to the brain.
Doctors said he suffered “severe neurological injury” with extensive loss of brain tissue and “profound weakness and contraction” of his muscles, arms and legs. His eyes opened and blinked but there were no signs of him understanding verbal commands or his surroundings.
He died at a Cincinnati hospital on Monday, sparking outrage and accusations of “murder” lodged against North Korea.
His family has declined an autopsy, which may have shed more light on the cause of the neurological injuries that left him in a coma.
Young Pioneer Tours said on its Facebook page on Tuesday that the death of the 22-year-old Warmbier shows that the risk American tourists face in visiting the isolated nation “has become too high” and that it would no longer take Americans to the hermit kingdom.