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What we're reading: What happened to Otto Warmbier in North Korea

A lawn sign in Wyoming, Ohio, that says "Justice for Otto"
A lawn sign in Otto Warmbier's hometown of Wyoming, Ohio. Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The death of Otto Warmbier last year amid allegations he was brutally tortured by the North Korean government became a catalyst for President Trump's June summit with dictator Kim Jong-un, but the circumstances of his death may not be so clear, Doug Bock Clark writes for GQ.

The big picture: No one knows exactly what happened to Warmbier during his 17 months in captivity — only that he was returned to his family with severe brain damage attributed, without evidence, to botulism. But after six months of reporting and conversations with dozens of North Korea experts, Clark found that the chances Warmbier's condition was caused by physical torture may be equally unlikely.

Flashback: In January 2015, Warmbier was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a restricted area of his hotel. He confessed to the crime during a televised news conference while reading from a handwritten script, one expert says was likely drafted by the North Koreans, and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

What they're saying, per Clark's reporting:

  • Other Americans detained in North Korea say Warmbier was likely brought to a guesthouse run by the North Korean secret police — quite luxurious in comparison to domestic prison camps.
  • "For the next two months, until his forced confession, Otto would probably have been relentlessly interrogated. ... The goal wasn't to extract the truth but to construct the fabulation that Otto read off handwritten notes at his news conference."
  • When Warmbier was brought home, his family used damage to his teeth and foot as evidence that he was beaten. The narrative that Warmbier was tortured was used by the Trump administration as a basis for escalating tensions with North Korea, but just one of the dozen experts Clark interviewed believes there was "even a remote likelihood that he had been beaten."
  • That is not to say that Warmbier wasn't psychologically tortured, however, and "the likelihood that his brain damage happened immediately after the sentencing...raises the possibility that he may have attempted suicide."

The bottom line: Medical examinations show that reports about Warmbier being physically beaten were likely wrong — and yet the Trump administration continued to spread that narrative even after that reality came to light.

  • Thus, Clark writes, "if the maverick boldness that the administration displayed in rescuing Otto represents the best of Trumpism, what followed once it was clear the reports were flawed encapsulates its troubling disregard for facts when a dubious narrative supports its interests."
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