The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage [in North Korea]
July 24, 2018 7:35 AM   Subscribe

SLGQ "As the Trump administration and North Korea spun Otto's story for their own ends, I spent six months reporting—from Washington, D.C., to Seoul—trying to figure out what had actually happened to him. What made an American college student go to Pyongyang? What kind of nightmare did he endure while in captivity? How did his brain damage occur? And how did his eventual death help push America closer toward war with North Korea and then, in a surprising reversal, help lead to Trump's peace summit with Kim Jong-un? The story I uncovered was stranger and sadder than anyone had known. In fact, I discovered that the manner of Otto's injury was not as black-and-white as people were encouraged to believe."
posted by Noisy Pink Bubbles (20 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
This whole story is just....ugh.

Especially Trump using his condition/death as a pretext for getting aggressive militarily with North Korea, then just completely backpedaling when there was a diplomatic line tossed out there by NK.

I hope his dad sees how shitty Drumpf was towards his son's entire situation, but I doubt it...
posted by kuanes at 8:21 AM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


Obviously this will probably never come out, but the author's theory about Otto's injuries seems a lot more plausible than some of the others.
posted by kevinbelt at 8:26 AM on July 24, 2018 [8 favorites]


The theory bit is all the way down in section 10 is where Otto's condition is attributed to suicide or an accident, either of which fit the timeline and SOP of N. Korea. The piece covers in detail that the N. Koreans have avoided physically tortured other white/western captives but do mentally torture them and several individuals have previously responded to that stress with self harm.

The politics and US government actions around Otto's detention and release is a mix of professionalism and rank amateurism. The sad tribal politics of abusing the families grief is just terrible.
posted by zenon at 8:36 AM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


I read this last night and was considering making a post, but felt too sad and overwhelmed about the whole thing. I wish we knew more, the bit about how he reacted while unresponsive dredges up uncomfortable memories of my Dad's time in a hospital after a massive heart attack.

At the same time, a part of me wants to yell at someone, there are reasons we don't encourage people to go to places like this. I know that's horrible considering what happened to him, but…
posted by Alensin at 8:51 AM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


This whole thing is so unbelievably shitty.

I'm probably a horrible person, but my very uncharitable and heartless read remains "Thrill-seeking golden boy finds out the hard way that there are situations from which daddy/America can't save him."

I mean, North Korea is really fucked up, but if this kid had instead died on Everest we'd be talking about how the Sherpas should bill his family for recovering the body. The rest of the world isn't a gap year playground for well-to-do Americans.

As to the suicide theory, there's pretty much zero evidence either way, so why even put it out there? It's not like it's going to help the family's grief.
posted by aspersioncast at 9:06 AM on July 24, 2018 [8 favorites]


As to the suicide theory, there's pretty much zero evidence either way, so why even put it out there?

It undermines Geriatric Caligula's foreign policy towards North Korea, and can force him to stop pointing to Otto as a martyr.

I'm probably a horrible person, but my very uncharitable and heartless read remains "Thrill-seeking golden boy finds out the hard way that there are situations from which daddy/America can't save him."

While I didn't get quite the same read (Otto seems to have been a little more self-aware), I do still have to ask - what's wrong with that? I say, the more people who get Gap Year Comeuppances, the better - USians are notoriously sheltered and ignorant about the rest of the world, and more people should be getting exposed to things, not less. For every Otto, there are probably 20 people like my brother, who left a frat boy and came home a massive environmentalist.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on July 24, 2018 [6 favorites]


what a terrible story.
what terrible writing.
posted by 20 year lurk at 9:17 AM on July 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


Warmbier may have attempted suicide, which led to his injuries.

Something this GQ article doesn't cover as much is how the tour company, operated by Westerners, who brought Warmbier to NK were totally and utterly irresponsible. A lot of drinking going on, not much if any oversight of the tour members.
posted by JamesBay at 9:41 AM on July 24, 2018 [10 favorites]


I would also have to say that a lot of white westerners who spend time in Asia tend to be obnoxious morons.

However, I don't think Warmbier or anyone else deserves this fate. Getting sternly lectured by a rural stationmaster for 15 seconds 20+ years ago was enough to set me straight.
posted by JamesBay at 9:44 AM on July 24, 2018 [8 favorites]


This piece included a lot of new information for me. I didn't know that the consensus was that he'd been treated well. (Physically, at least.) I'm glad the writer pointed out that, per past prisoners of the regime, the psychological trauma can be deadly enough. The attempted suicide theory sounds a lot more likely now -- inasmuch as it could be called suicide when someone already has a gun to their head.

Two things come to mind here:
1) Absolutely no one deserves to find themselves imprisoned over geopolitical squabbles.
2) There is a non-zero chance of this happening, especially to Americans who visit countries we don't have decent relations with. My dad comes from Iran, and I'll probably never go there. It would probably be fine if I did! But if it didn't, I could end up in jail for years. I've always been aware of this. I believe most members of the Iranian diaspora, even the ones who do return to visit family, are aware of this. But I've also traveled with American college kids, and I know how most of them blithely ignore this basic risk assessment to visit countries where they don't speak the language and don't know anything about the political situation. Americans tend to make the assumption that if one can buy something, the resulting experience will be safe. That just isn't true.

As for Young Pioneer Tours...there was a piece on the Highline about them a few months ago. They came off better than I expected, but my expectations were very low.
posted by grandiloquiet at 10:16 AM on July 24, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm probably a horrible person, but my very uncharitable and heartless read remains "Thrill-seeking golden boy finds out the hard way that there are situations from which daddy/America can't save him."

I do still have to ask - what's wrong with that? I say, the more people who get Gap Year Comeuppances, the better

Torture to the point of death (self-inflicted or otherwise) isn't a "comeuppance." Victims aren't asking for it, nor do they deserve it---even if they're not your idea of a perfect victim.

Jesus.
posted by This time is different. at 12:04 PM on July 24, 2018 [33 favorites]


The Highline piece on Young Pioneer Tours appeared previously on the blue, with some discussion of the tour group's culpability for what happened to Otto Warmbier.
posted by yomimono at 12:25 PM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


Regardless of what happened, North Korea owns it. Maybe the Trumpist propaganda was wrong, in this case it makes no difference (except the fact that Trump forgot all about Otto When he had his photo-op with Kim).
Someone I once knew made a similarly reckless tour of North Korea once, and I hated every minute of it, even though he survived. Don't go. Don't legitimize the North Korean government, and don't put yourself at peril.

Otto Warmbier was young and naive, maybe even culturally stupid, but no one deserves what happed to him. Or his poor parents.
.
posted by mumimor at 2:18 PM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


Victims aren't asking for it, nor do they deserve it---even if they're not your idea of a perfect victim.

Oh come on now. Nobody *deserves* to be tortured. But there's no evidence either way WRT Warmbier, and really it's only the (quite credible and demonstrating no tendency to lie repeatedly for political gain or just the lulz) Trump administration who alleges he was tortured; if you read the article, it's pretty clear that the general consensus is that torture is actually pretty unlikely.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:52 PM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


if you read the article, it's pretty clear that the general consensus is that torture is actually pretty unlikely.

From the article:
Even if North Korea didn't beat Otto, that doesn't mean that he wasn't tortured, as the mental suffering the regime inflicted on him constitutes torture under the U.N. definition.
He was tortured. He did not deserve to be tortured.

The article draws a line between beatings -- which Trump & Co. have alleged, but not proven -- and other forms of torture, which the article finds to be almost undeniable. That he was tortured does not mean that the Trumpian narrative is correct, because Trump & co. keep using 'torture' to mean 'physical torture' and not 'all torture.' It would be helpful if could maybe hew to the line the article draws, between physical and psychological torture.*

*Which aren't completely separable, but drawing some kind of a line does help us not talk past each other.
posted by cjelli at 7:03 PM on July 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


According to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (which the US regularly violates, btw -- it's not just NK), “torture” is understood to mean:

"any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions."
posted by JamesBay at 9:42 AM on July 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


I also read with interest that the family "withdrew" a previously provided statement when they found out about the content of the story. That was remarkably compassionate of GQ, even though it goes against what I understand are journalistic norms.
posted by wnissen at 10:51 AM on July 25, 2018


What do we make of the family's first hand account of his condition that was not corroborated by the medical professionals involved?
posted by Selena777 at 8:29 AM on July 27, 2018


"What do we make of the family's first hand account of his condition that was not corroborated by the medical professionals involved?"

I can't speak for them, but if I saw my kid in a coma near death after being somewhere with a reputation for torture, I'm almost certain I would overreact. I certainly wouldn't be looking at my kid with the dispassionate eye of a doctor or lawyer. I would be absolutely hysterical, and in that condition, I doubt I'd be able to remember many details besides the fact that my kid might die. Combine the extreme stress with humans' inherent problems with observation, and it's not surprising their memories differ.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:10 AM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


Torture to the point of death (self-inflicted or otherwise) isn't a "comeuppance." Victims aren't asking for it, nor do they deserve it---even if they're not your idea of a perfect victim.

Only now that you point that out do I realize how horribly my point could have been misconstrued, and I apologize for the TRULY grotesque mis-speaking.

Absolutely agree that nobody deserves torture. It was not my intent to say otherwise in the LEAST.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:14 AM on July 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


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