DOUG BOCK CLARK , GQ Magazine Online (originally published in the August 2018 issue)
July 23, 2018
President Trump hailed him as a catalyst of the summit with Kim Jong-Un. But what happened to Warmbier—the American college student who was sent home brain-damaged from North Korea—is even more shocking than anyone knew.
On a humid morning in June 2017, in a suburb outside Cincinnati, Fred and Cindy Warmbier waited in agony. They had not spoken to their son Otto for a year and a half, since he had been arrested during a budget tour of North Korea. One of their last glimpses of him had been from a televised news conference in Pyongyang, during which their boy—a sweet, brainy 21-year-old scholarship student at the University of Virginia—confessed to undermining the regime at the behest of the unlikely triumvirate of an Ohio church, a university secret society, and the American government by stealing a propaganda poster. He sobbed to his captors, “I have made the single worst decision of my life. But I am only human.… I beg that you find it in your hearts to give me forgiveness and allow me to return home to my family.” Despite his pleas, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and vanished into the dictatorship’s prison system.
Fred and Cindy had so despaired during their long vigil that at one point they allegedly told friends that Otto had probably been killed. On her son’s 22nd birthday, Cindy lit Chinese-style lanterns and let the winter winds loft the flame-buoyed balloons toward North Korea, dreaming they might bear her message to her son. “I love you, Otto,” she said, then sang “Happy Birthday.”
But on that June morning, the Warmbiers were anticipating news of a secret State Department mission to free Otto. Upon learning that Otto was apparently unconscious, President Trump had directed an American team to fly into North Korea, and now progress of the mission was being monitored at the highest level of the government. No assurances had been made that the young man would actually be released, and so the officials were on tenterhooks as well. According to an official, at 8:35 A.M., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson telephoned the president to announce that Otto was airborne. The president reportedly signed off by saying, “Take care of Otto.” Then Rob Portman, the Ohio senator who helped oversee efforts to repatriate Otto, called to inform the Warmbiers that the air ambulance had just entered Japanese airspace: Otto would be home that night.
Still, Cindy knew her son was not through danger yet. In advance of the rescue, Portman had informed her that Otto had been unconscious for months, according to the North Koreans, though no one knew the exact extent of the injury. “Can you tell me how Otto’s brain is functioning?” she asked.
Portman answered that Otto appeared to have severe brain damage.
Cindy told news outlets that she imagined that might mean Otto was asleep or in a medically induced coma. The Warmbiers were optimistic, up-by-their-bootstraps patriots, and they hoped that with American health care and their love, their son might again become the vivacious person he’d been when he left.
Now Portman and his staff scrambled to prepare the homecoming, rerouting the plane from Cincinnati’s international airport to a smaller municipal one, which would be more private. As the sun went down, a crowd waved handmade signs welcoming Otto home, and TV crews pushed their cameras against the bars of the perimeter fence. The sleek luxury plane taxied to some hangars, where the Warmbiers waited nearby.
Halfway up the airplane’s stairs, over the whine of the still-cycling engines, Fred later said, he heard a guttural “inhuman” howling and wondered what it was. But when he stepped into the cabin cluttered with medical equipment, he found its source: Otto, strapped to a stretcher, jerking violently against his restraints and wailing.
Cindy was prepared for her son to be changed, but she had not expected this. Otto’s arms and legs were “totally deformed,” according to his parents. His wavy brown locks had been buzzed off. A feeding tube infiltrated his nostrils. “It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and re-arranged his bottom teeth,” as Fred would say. According to Cindy, Otto’s sister fled the plane, screaming, and Cindy ran after her.
Fred approached his son and hugged him. Otto’s eyes remained wide open and blank. Fred told Otto that he had missed him and was overjoyed to have him home. But Otto’s alien keening only continued, impossible to comfort.
By the time paramedics carried Otto out of the plane by his legs and armpits and loaded him into an ambulance, Cindy had recovered somewhat. She forced herself to join him in the emergency vehicle, though seeing him in such torment had almost made her pass out.
At the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, the family camped at Otto’s bedside while speculation blazed around the world about what had rendered him vegetative. But Otto would never recover to tell his side of the story. And despite exhaustive examinations by doctors, no definitive medical evidence explaining how his injury came to be would ever emerge.
Instead, in the vacuum of fact, North Korea and the U.S. competed to provide a story. North Korea blamed Otto’s condition on a combination of botulism and an unexpected reaction to a sleeping pill, an explanation that many American doctors said was unlikely. A senior American official asserted that, according to intelligence reports, Otto had been repeatedly beaten. Fred and Cindy declared on TV that their son had been physically tortured, in order to spotlight the dictatorship’s evil. The president pushed this narrative. Meanwhile, the American military made preparations for a possible conflict. Otto became a symbol used to build “a case for war on emotional grounds,” the New York Times editorial board wrote.
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. But before he became a rallying cry in the administration’s campaign against North Korea, he was just a kid. His name was Otto Warmbier.
In a white two-story home flying the Stars and Stripes, Otto grew up the eldest child of a Republican family. He was one of those special young people we praise as all-American. At a top-ranked Ohio high school, he boasted the second-best grades. He was also a math whiz and a gifted soccer player and swimmer. And as if it weren’t enough that he was prom king, his peers also anointed him with the plastic crown at homecoming.
But despite running in the “popular circle given his athletic prowess, classic good looks and unending charisma,” a classmate later wrote in a local newspaper, he “still felt like everyone’s friend.” Though his family was well-off, he had a passion for “memorabilia investing,” as he called thrift-store shopping, and sometimes dressed in secondhand Hawaiian shirts. When the time came for him to give a speech at his high school graduation, instead of orating grandiosely, he admitted to struggling to find words. He took as his theme a quote from The Office: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days,” he told his peers, “before you’ve actually left them.”
Of course, Otto’s best days seemed ahead: He attended the University of Virginia with a scholarship, intent on becoming a banker. A meticulous planner, he filled a calendar hung on his dorm wall with handwritten commitments: from assignments to dates to bringing differently abled friends to basketball games. He joined a fraternity known for its “kind of nerdy dudes,” and one of his college friends said that academics and family always took precedence over everything else, from partying to tailgating at football games. When he won a finance internship the fall of his junior year, there was no disputing that he was a man fully in charge of his destiny.
Knowing that he would soon be laboring over spreadsheets, he decided he wanted an adventure over his winter break. He had long been curious about other cultures and had previously visited intrepid destinations like Cuba. And since he would already be traveling to Hong Kong to study abroad, he decided he wanted to witness the world’s most repressive nation: North Korea. Even though the state imprisons and sometimes executes citizens trying to flee it, it permits thousands of foreigners to visit every year on tightly controlled tours—one of the few ways its sanction-crippled economy makes cash. If Otto had Googled “tour North Korea,” the top link would have been for the company he chose, Young Pioneer Tours, an operator specializing in budget excursions to “destinations your mother would rather you stay away from.” The trips have a reputation of being like spring break in a geopolitical hot spot. After putting down a deposit for a $1,200 five-day, four-night “New Year’s Party Tour,” Otto learned from the confirmation e-mail that his visa would be arranged by the company and presented to him when he met the tour group at the Beijing airport. The State Department had an advisory in place against traveling to North Korea, where he’d be beyond the American government’s power to directly help him. Otto’s parents weren’t thrilled by the trip, but as his mother later explained, “Why would you say no to a kid like this?”
So, shortly after Christmas 2015, Otto met the other Young Pioneers in China and boarded an old Soviet jet to Pyongyang. In North Korea’s capital, border police confiscated cameras and flicked through each file on smartphones to make sure no outsider was smuggling in subversive materials. Then Otto stepped through passport control—and just like that, left the free world.
3. The Happiest Nation
Early on in Pyongyang, Otto and the other Young Pioneers were led aboard the U.S.S. Pueblo,an American Navy spy ship that had been seized by the North Koreans in 1968 and today serves as an odd tourist attraction. While they toured the ship, the Young Pioneers were regaled by a North Korean who told the foreign visitors about capturing the ship from the “imperial enemy.” The 82 American sailors captured on the Pueblo were beaten and starved for 11 months before finally being released. For Otto, the story made clear what he had perhaps overlooked before: that he was in enemy territory. Even though the Korean War had stalemated in 1953, the lack of a peace agreement meant that the North was technically still at war with the South and its ally, the U.S. Stepping from the boat, Otto “was a little bit shocked,” said Danny Gratton, an impish British 40-something greeting-card salesman who was his roommate for the tour.
But Gratton and the other tourists, a mix of Canadians, Australians, Europeans, and at least one other American, helped Otto laugh off that dark knowledge, nicknaming him “Imperial Enemy”—as in, “Hey, Imperial Enemy, want another beer?” Soon enough Otto was having fun again, for even though propaganda billboards showed North Korean missiles blasting the White House, the tour felt more like a bizarre charade than a visit to a hostile nation. The Young Pioneers visited the 70-foot bronze statues of the first two generations of the country’s dictators, and they could never be sure if the citizens they saw spontaneously hailing the Great Leader were sincere or put up to it. Of course, everyone knew that outside the stage-managed capital lay starving villages and concentration camps. But Otto succeeded in bridging the cultural divide, laughing and throwing snowballs with North Korean children.
On New Year’s Eve, the Young Pioneers went drinking at a fancy bar, though according to Gratton, no one got belligerently drunk, as some reports would later suggest. After the bar, Gratton says, they celebrated the final hours of New Year’s Eve with thousands of North Koreans in Pyongyang’s main square. The group then returned to their hotel, known as the “Alcatraz of Fun” because of its island location. To keep foreigners entertained, the 47-story tower is furnished with five restaurants (one of which revolves), a bar, a sauna, a massage parlor, and its own bowling alley. Some Young Pioneers headed to the bar. Gratton went bowling, and lost track of Otto. It was only later that he would wonder about “the two-hour window that none of us can account for [Otto].”
North Korea would later release grainy CCTV camera footage of an unidentifiable figure removing a framed propaganda poster from a wall in a restricted area of the hotel, claiming it was Otto. During the televised confession, Otto would read from a handwritten script that he had put on his “quietest boots, the best for sneaking” and attempted the theft at the prompting of a local Methodist church, a university secret society, and the American administration, “to harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people” and bring home a “trophy.” Many of the confession’s details didn’t square—for one, Otto was Jewish, not affiliated with a Methodist church—making experts suspect the words weren’t originally Otto’s. Whatever happened during those lost hours, when Gratton returned to his and Otto’s room, around 4:30 A.M. on January 1, Otto was already snoozing.
The following morning at the airport, the two tired friends were the last Young Pioneers to present their passports, side by side at a single desk. After an uncomfortably long time, Gratton noticed that the officers were intently scrutinizing the documents. Then two soldiers marched up, and one tapped Otto on the shoulder. Gratton thought the authorities just wanted to give the Imperial Enemy a hard time, and jested, “Well, that’s the last we’ll ever see of you.”
Otto laughed, and then let himself be led away from Gratton through a wooden door beside the check-in area. Otto’s control of his carefully planned life had just been wrenched from him.