Monday 21 August 2017

Explainer: Who is Otto Warmbier and what happened to him in North Korea?

A handcuffed Otto Warmbier under guard at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang in March 2016 (AP)
A handcuffed Otto Warmbier under guard at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang in March 2016 (AP)
Otto Warmbier being escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang in March last year (AP)

Dan Sewell and Sasha Brady

Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student who was detained in North Korea in 2016, died just six days after he was returned to the United States.

Who is Otto Warmbier?

A 22-year-old University of Virginia student who was held in a North Korean prison for more than 17 months.

He was arrested in January 2016 while attempting to steal a North Korean propaganda poster.

Mr Warmbier was convicted of subversion.

He was put before North Korean officials and journalists for a televised "confession".

He was released from prison last week in a coma.

His family have confirmed that the student died in Ohio on Monday, shortly after his release from North Korea.

Mr Warmbier grew up in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming.

He was elected Homecoming King and captain of his high-school soccer team.

Wyoming City Schools released a statement saying the organisation was "deeply saddened" by his death.

"The countless contributions he made to his school and community through his leadership, actions and limitless enthusiasm will be felt far into the future," the school district said.

How did he die?

His family did not cite a cause of death.

"Unfortunately, the awful, torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today," his parents said in a statement.

Doctors had described Mr Warmbier's condition as a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" and said he suffered a "severe neurological injury" of unknown cause.

He was sentenced in March last year to 15 years in prison with hard labour. His relatives said they were told he had been in a coma since soon after his sentencing.

Doctors said he suffered extensive loss of brain tissue and "profound weakness and contraction" of his muscles, arms and legs. His eyes opened and blinked but without any sign that he understood verbal commands or his surroundings.

Dr. Jordan Bonomo (L), a Neurointensivist, Dr. Daniel Kanter (C), Medical Director of the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit, and Dr. Brandon Forman (R), a Neurointensive Care Specialist, field questions about the condition and treatment of Otto Warmbier during a news conference at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston
Dr. Jordan Bonomo (L), a Neurointensivist, Dr. Daniel Kanter (C), Medical Director of the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit, and Dr. Brandon Forman (R), a Neurointensive Care Specialist, field questions about the condition and treatment of Otto Warmbier during a news conference at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, U.S., June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Unresponsive wakefulness is a new medical term for persistent vegetative state. Patients in this condition who have survived a coma can open their eyes, but they do not respond to commands. People can live in a state of unresponsive wakefulness for many years with the chances of recovery depending on the extent of the brain injury.

North Korea said Mr Warmbier went into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. Doctors in Cincinnati said they found no active sign of botulism or evidence of beatings.

Why was he in North Korea?

Mr Warmbier had planned to study in China in his third year of college and heard about Chinese travel companies offering trips to North Korea.

American student Otto Warmbier speaking to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea
American student Otto Warmbier speaking to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea

He booked a trip with Young Pioneer Tours and headed to North Korea with a group.

The travel agency specialises in North Korea tours and is based in the central Chinese city of Xi'an.

He was leaving the country on January 2 last year when he was detained at the airport.

The China-based travel agency said on its Facebook page that the death of Mr Warmbier shows the risk facing American tourists in North Korea "has become too high" and they will no longer offer tours to the country.

The tour operator said it was denied any opportunity to meet him after his detention, and that the way it was handled was "appalling".

The travel agency specialises in North Korea tours and is based in the central Chinese city of Xi'an.

Three Americans remain held in North Korea. The US government accuses Pyongyang of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.

How did the US react?

President Donald Trump called North Korea a "brutal regime" after the death was announced.

Mr Trump said: "Lot of bad things happened but at least we got him home to be with his parents."

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