Marking Another Anniversary on June 19

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Lindsay Lloyd

The Bush Institute's Bradford M. Freeman Director of Human Freedom, Lindsay Lloyd, reflects on the anniversary of Otto Warmbier's tragic death.

June 19 has taken on a special significance this year. At a time of racial unrest, many take note of Juneteenth, when victorious Union forces in Galveston, Texas finally proclaimed that all slaves were free.  Amid the recognition and celebration, we should also pause to note that June 19 represents another anniversary.

Three years ago, Otto Warmbier died. 

Warmbier was a 22-year old student at the University of Virginia. On his way to a study abroad program in Asia, he decided to visit North Korea as part of an organized tour group.  As his group was preparing to leave Pyongyang, security officials arrested Warmbier, alleging he had tried to damage or steal a propaganda poster glorifying the regime.  After a March 2016 show trial, Warmbier was convicted of subversion and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

While in North Korean custody, Warmbier was subjected to grave injuries and was comatose for over a year.  After months of diplomatic negotiations, Warmbier was finally released and returned to his family in Ohio. His injuries left him in a vegetative state and his parents ordered that his life not be prolonged by artificial means. An American court later found the North Koreans responsible for the “torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier,” while his captors claimed he had contracted botulism. 

While we will likely never know what precisely happened to Otto Warmbier in captivity, his experience speaks volumes about the cruel character of the North Korean regime. As we saw so clearly in the Warmbier case, the three generations of the ruling Kim family have no respect for human rights. Otto Warmbier was a relatively rare case of a foreigner being abused by the regime, but more than 20 million North Koreans suffer a life where there are no boundaries against the tyranny of the state. A pervasive security apparatus, a vast network of prison camps holding perhaps 150,000 people, and a system of punishment that includes torture and execution all serve to enforce Kim Jong Un’s iron grip on power.

Pyongyang continues to flout international norms and its treaty commitments, through the illegal development of weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them. In recent days, we’ve witnessed the regime’s dramatic break with South Korea, derailing a tenuous effort at détente with Seoul by literally demolishing the building housing bureaucrats working to develop ties and build trust between the Koreas. We have seen the White House’s efforts at high-level summitry collapse after three head-of-state meetings produced no results.

But beyond the serious negative developments in international politics and statecraft, the real story of North Korea is one of a country with the worst human rights record on the planet, where personal freedoms like speech, worship, and assembly are unknown; where malnutrition and disease ravage the population; and where an unelected dynasty rules by force. 

In an extraordinary statement in February 2019, President Donald Trump stated that he believed Kim bore no responsibility for Warmbier’s murder, saying, “Some really bad things happened to Otto — some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.” It stretches credulity that the North Korean dictator was unaware of circumstances of an American citizen being held by his government.

Despite the president’s unwarranted exoneration, there can be little doubt as to who bears responsibility for the death of a young American three years ago. The anniversary of Otto Warmbier’s death three years ago should provide Americans with a moment to recall his suffering and murder at the hands of Kim Jong Un’s regime.