The case of Otto Frederick Warmbier is an example of what can happen to someone in a nation where the state is all and the individual is nothing.
The 25-year-old college student spent 5 days in North Korea at the start of this year. As he was waiting at the airport preparing to leave the country he was arrested and dragged out by armed guards. When his tour guide realized the 25-year-old was missing and might miss his flight back to China, she called him trying to find out what had happened. Warmbier answered his phone and claimed he didn’t want to leave the country. Then he hung up.
Two months later the world finally heard from Warmbier again when he appeared at a press conference in Pyongyang Monday morning. The crime he is accused of committing is one that would be treated as a prank or, at worst, a misdemeanor in the United States. CNN reports on Warmbier’s alleged crime and the even stranger motive he is said to have had for trying to commit it:
The official says Warmbier put on “quiet shoes” he brought from the United States, and just before 2 a.m. on January 1, 2016, he entered the staff-only second floor of the hotel intending to steal a sign or banner with a political slogan.
“The slogan was bigger than he thought. So he couldn’t take it away and turned it upside down and deserted (it) on the floor when he had pulled it from the hangers,” the official said.
A North Korean official with direct knowledge of the case tells CNN that Warmbier is accused of meeting last year with a member of the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio — a small suburb of Cincinnati.
The church member “emphasized that North Korea is an anti-Christian communist state and that communism should be ended,” said the North Korean official, whom CNN has agreed not to identify.
According to the same official, the church member allegedly encouraged Warmbier “to take an important political slogan from North Korea in order to weaken the ideological unity and motivation of the North Koreans” and promised to give him a “$10,000 used car” if the “mission” was successful.
While the non-theft of a hotel banner would not be a serious crime anywhere else in the world, in North Korea it is a political crime against the state. The attempted theft of the banner was treated as an attempt to dis-unify the workers at the hotel. At his televised press conference Monday, Warmbier bowed repeatedly and at one point broke into tears and begged for forgiveness for his very serious crime:
Wambier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, released a statement after seeing images of the press conference:
We have only seen a few photos of him, but he seems to be in good health, although we won’t know for sure about his condition until we have a chance to speak with him.
I hope the fact that he has conveyed his sincere apology for anything that he may have done wrong will now make it possible for the DPRK authorities to allow him to return home. I urge the DPRK government to consider his youth and make an important humanitarian gesture by allowing him to return to his loved ones.
The U.S. State Department is working to secure Wambier’s release.