North Korea Has Killed Tom Sawyer

All Americans, no matter of what political persuasion, deeply mourn the death of Otto Warmbier, the all-American youth.  He was reportedly a soccer and football player and homecoming king at his high school in Wyoming, Ohio.  He came from a religiously devout family.  And Otto was also an accomplished scholar at the University of Virginia, one of the nation’s premier universities. (

Almost every American has a son, daughter, sibling, nephew, niece, grandchild, neighbor or family friend who is currently or was recently a university student.  Those who went to college themselves remember carefree days, as well as challenging studies, when they engaged in one or more youthful pranks.  Maybe even the local police were involved.  I vividly recall a half century ago when my fellow college students on their junior year abroad jumped into the Trevi Fountain in Rome for a midnight swim, echoing the famous scene from Fellini’s film “La Dolce Vita.”  The Italian carabinieri quickly responded to this show of disrespect for a national monument.  The Loyola University Rome Center director was duly summoned to the police station, vouching for the future good behavior of the wayward American students.  That resolved the issue to everyone’s satisfaction.

Unfortunately, for Otto, that was not the end of his story as far as the North Koreans were concerned.  Having taken a propaganda poster from a tourist hotel wall as a souvenir, he was then terrorized and brutalized by the despotic North Korean regime.  Otto’s show trial, where he was forced to bow to the court and confess his alleged crimes, was followed by his mysterious disappearance for fifteen months.  Despite Pyongyang’s accession to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, ( which guarantees consular access to imprisoned citizens of another country, ( Sweden, America’s Protecting Power in Pyongyang, was denied contact, despite repeated requests from Washington.
As the visa chief and, at times, acting consul general at the American Embassy in Beijing during the incarceration of U.S. citizen Evan Hunziker in North Korea in late 1996, I was involved in the coordination with the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang, via both their Embassy in Beijing and through a visit by a Swedish diplomat posted in Pyongyang, after they were allowed one consular visit with Mr. Hunziker on September 17 of that year.  Although later denied consular access, that one visit confirmed the state of Mr. Hunziker’s health and could have proved of immeasurable importance in Otto Warmbier’s case.  Such a visit would have revealed that Otto had sunk into a coma.  Hunziker returned home in late 1996, due to the good offices of then Congressman Bill Richardson, after the U.S. refused the request for a $100,000 bribe from the North Koreans. Unfortunately, Mr. Hunziker shortly thereafter took his own life, although there were reportedly other issues involved beyond his imprisonment by the North Koreans. (

North Korea has brutalized other American detainees, including the report of horrific torture of former U.S. hostage Robert Park.  Pyongyang has also increased its seizure of U.S. citizens in recent years, apparently learning that such bad behavior elicits such diplomatic rewards as the visits of former U.S. president to North Korea– both former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter have made the trek to bring U.S. prisoners home.  In its brutal treatment of U.S. citizens, North Korea has only been surpassed in recent years by ISIS which has been documented as beheading three of its American hostages.

Pyongyang’s treatment of Otto Warmbier, however, should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the UN Commission of Inquiry’s report on Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), which was released in February 2014.  The Commission noted in a press release at the time of its report’s release that it had found “a wide array of crimes against humanity, arising from policies established at the highest level of State, have been committed and continue to take place in the DPRK.” It added further that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world…These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing starvation.”
This is the dark world into which the young American traveler Otto Warmbier was lured with the promise of a brief adventure in an off-the-beaten track location by a questionable tour company.  This reportedly happened during a stop in Beijing while en route to overseas study in Hong Kong.  There our fellow American entered a nightmare of torture, psychological and physical abuse, and ultimately being left in a coma which brought about his untimely death due to brutality and a lack of adequate medical care.  Otto’s nightmare was undoubtedly made worse by the fact that he was an American passport holder visiting a paranoid regime where all have been taught from birth to despise and wish ill of all Americans.
I remember during a 1996 visit to North Korea for a UNDP economic conference in Rajin/Sonbong, a conversation with an old lady working in the fields.   She said, when asked about the presence of so many Americans, “we have been told to welcome you foreigners.”  One can only imagine what she would have done if she had been directed by the authorities to do otherwise.

In this regard, we fellow Americans all are one with Otto Warmbier.   His death by what his father correctly called a “pariah regime” diminishes us all.  (  A nuclear armed North Korean regime with a delivery capability will leave no American safe.

The best tribute to the legacy of America’s fallen Tom Sawyer would be for our government to insist that Pyongyang turn over the three remaining U.S. citizen hostages as soon as possible.  Our government then needs to implement security measures to assure that North Korea’s irrational hatred of Americans, put to so violent a use against Otto Warmbier, is not then used to threaten us all with nuclear blackmail.




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