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Otto Warmbier suffered horrific injuries. But did North Korea torture him?

Pyongyang says his coma comes from food poisoning. No one believes them.

A picture of Otto Warmbier being taking away by North Korean soldiers
The 23-year-old was arrested for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda flag
Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

The strange and sad case of Otto Warmbier, the 23-year-old US citizen freed this week after 15 months of captivity in North Korea, is raising new and serious questions about why Pyongyang broke with its normal practice and injured the young American so horrifically that he came home in a coma.

The University of Virginia student was released Monday after serving the first chunk of an 15-year sentence for committing an unspecified “hostile act” against North Korea. (Warmbier confessed on TV that he was being sentenced for stealing a propaganda poster, though his father has called this a “performance.”)

At a press conference today, a spokesperson for the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said Warmbier, who arrived in the US in a comatose state, is in stable condition but had suffered a severe neurological injury in North Korea.

At the same press conference, Warmbier’s father, Fred, said that he didn’t think the Obama administration had done enough to bring his son back home. Asked to compare the Obama administration's efforts to the Trump administration's, the elder Warmbier replied, “I think the results speak for themselves.”

Fred Warmbier also said that he and his wife were frustrated by requests from government personnel to keep a low profile to avoid offending North Korea — a strategy that they believe did nothing to hasten their son’s release. He said the Warmbier family "relied on this false premise that [the North Koreans] would treat Otto fairly.”

The couple broke their silence in April on a TV interview with Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson. They believe this segment spurred the diplomatic process that eventually led President Trump to send a State Department envoy and a medical team to Pyongyang to secure Warmbier’s return to the US.

Conservative pundits said Fred Warmbier’s comments this morning showed that Trump deserved credit for accomplishing something his predecessor couldn't. Fox News even ran a headline: “Otto Warmbier's father lashes out at North Korea, hits Obama inaction.”

However, experts on North Korea worry that the politics will distract from what they see as the most disturbing aspect of the entire saga: the extraordinarily harsh way the young American was treated while in captivity.

It’s common for North Korea to abuse its foreign prisoners, but not like this

In an interview, North Korea expert Sung-Yoon Lee of Tufts University said it’s not unprecedented for foreign detainees — even US citizens — to be subject to physical abuse, but said the severity of Warmbier’s injuries is highly unusual.

Lee said the majority of US detainees in North Korea over the past 20 years haven’t been subject to physical abuse, but it’s “more than conceivable” that a regime internationally recognized as having one of the worst human rights records would torture a foreigner like Warmbier.

Apart from Warmbier, there are several examples of US detainees being physically abused by North Korea in recent history: Robert Park, a Christian missionary who entered North Korea in 2009 said he was tortured and sexually abused by government officials; Laura Ling, a US journalist who was captured while working in North Korea, said she was also hit in the head by North Korean soldiers.

“We’ve seen different degrees of abuse, but I won’t say that torture, in itself, is unique,” Lee said.

What is unprecedented with the Warmbier case is the severity of the apparent abuse. No US detainee has ever returned home in a comatose state before. If he doesn’t recover, Warmbier may have sustained the most serious injuries ever by a US detainee in North Korea, though there are still three US citizens imprisoned in North Korea whose conditions we don’t know about.

What’s also unique about this case is the profile of the victim; Lee said the North Korean regime is likelier to abuse ethnic Koreans than white people like Warmbier.

“The fact that Robert Park was severely tortured for about two months doesn’t surprise me because the North Koreans feel a lot of possession over people who are ethnically Korean,” he explained. “The fact that [Otto] is Caucasian and the fact that he’s young man ... it’s certainly newsworthy.”

The official statement from North Korean officials is that Warmbier suffered a severe case of food poisoning called botulism, and fell into a coma after being given sleeping pills. Doctors tending to Warmbier say there is no evidence for this, but that leaves us with the question: why is he in a coma?

Doctors tending to Warmbier at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said he is in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.” He has suffered extensive brain damage that is likely the result of insufficient blood supply to the brain for a period of time, which doctors estimate happened over a year ago. Warmbier has no fractures that they could detect.

“[North Korea] definitely didn’t intend to show the world how they treat their prisoners, especially ... a young Caucasian US citizen,” Lee said. “That just is not good PR.”

Right now, there are still too many questions about what happened to Warmbier in Pyongyang. In light of his condition, it’s not clear if they’ll ever be answered. But given the severity of his injuries and the high profile of the case, the controversy over his handling while in captivity will continue to rage even while he’s home.