Asians have a cultural inclination to closely commemorate historic dates like the liberation of Korea (August 15) or the bombing of Hiroshima (August 6.) This is not true so much for Americans with our sense of historic amnesia. But one would think that even Americans could remember a major international event that occurred just one year ago.
It was June 12, 2017 – exactly one year to the day before the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore – that then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that North Korea had just released University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier and that he was flying home to his anxious family in Ohio – but, it was soon discovered, in a comatose state. The Trump Administration had not been hesitant in its criticism of the previous Obama Administration’s handling of Otto’s imprisonment in North Korea — his arrest seventeen months earlier had occurred on Obama’s watch. Unfortunately, even the Trump Administration’s efforts came too late. Despite the best efforts of an excellent team of physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center young Otto would die within a week of his return to American soil.
Otto’s death due to torture and medical neglect by the North Korean regime ranks among the most egregious examples of North Korean murders of American citizens, including the axe murders of U.S. Army officers Captain Arthur Bonifas and First Lieutenant Mark Barrett in the DMZ in August 1976. There was also the murder, by starvation and medical neglect, of U.S. Army chaplain Father Emil Kapaun of Kansas in a POW camp in May of 1951. Father Kapaun was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Obama at the White House in April 2011 and is under consideration for canonization as a saint and martyr by the Roman Catholic Church – which would make him the first Korean War saint.
Otto Warmbier, as every American parent who worries about their college kid abroad should know, was on his way to a study abroad program in Hong Kong when he decided to join a New Year’s trip to the “exotic” Hermit Kingdom of North Korea run by a travel agency out of Beijing. During his five days in Pyongyang, Otto reportedly foolishly decided to snatch a North Korean poster from a wall in his tourist hotel. That was the beginning of the end for Otto Warmbier.
Other Americans in their carefree, thoughtless days of youth have committed similar pranks abroad. The most famous before Otto was World War II hero and POW Louis Zamperini. Zamperini, while attending the 1936 Olympics as a runner on the U.S. team, decided to snatch a Nazi flag off the Reich Chancery in Berlin. He was chased and nearly shot by a gun-wielding Nazi but in the end even the Nazis recognized a youthful prank for what it was and let Zamperini go. Not so for the North Koreans. On January 2, 2016 as Otto and his fellow tour group were about to board a plane at Pyongyang International Airport, Otto was approached by North Korean security. Otto’s British hotel roommate, Danny Gratton, described to Washington Post reporter Josh Rogin what happened next: “No words were spoken. Two guards just came over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away. I just said kind of quite nervously: ‘Well that’s the last we’ll see of you.’” No truer words were ever spoken. The rest of the tour group boarded their plane to leave the country after being told the obvious lie by a North Korean official that “Otto is very sick and has been taken to the hospital.”
Otto then disappeared into the North Korean gulag after which North Korea’s official Korea Central News Agency (KCNA) announced that he had been detained for “hostile acts against the state.” He resurfaced at press conference almost two months later where a visibly distraught Otto read a prepared statement confessing to his alleged crimes. In March of 2016 he was sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor. Human Rights Watch called the trial “a kangaroo court.” Otto then disappeared from public view. The Swedish Ambassador, America’s “protecting power” in Pyongyang since there is no U.S. Embassy there, managed to see Otto about two months after his detention but then was reportedly, by Foreign Policy, denied access, being told by the North Koreans that Otto was “a prisoner of war.” This was a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations of which the DPRK (North Korea) is a signatory.
The real reason for denying access to Otto, according to North Korea watcher Mickey Bergman (Foreign Policy), was “retroactively we know that the reason he (the Swedish Ambassador) wasn’t granted access was because Otto was already in a coma and the North Koreans did not want to reveal that.” On June 6, 2017 in New York, days before veteran U.S. diplomat Ambassador Joseph Yun would travel to Pyongyang to assure that no American is left behind, North Korean officials revealed that Otto had slipped into a coma due to “botulism” and “a sleeping pill” – no mention of beatings or blunt instruments as is all too common in the North Korean gulag, according to the accounts of numerous North Korean defectors. Ambassador Yun brought Otto, in a vegetative state, home to his grieving parents, arriving at Cincinnati airport of the evening of June 13, 2017. He died on June 19. His funeral was national news. America was both shocked and outraged. How soon we forget.
Louis Zamperini, who was forgiven for his youthful prank by the Nazis, went on to serve in the Pacific in the Second World War, survive captivity in a brutal POW camp of Imperial Japan and live to become a national celebrity due to the publication of his memoirs and the production of the Hollywood film Unbroken. Louis Zamperini died a few years ago at age 97. Otto Warmbier died almost exactly one year ago at age 22.
But this is not the end of the story. At his State of the Union address less than five months ago, President Donald Trump invited Otto’s parents to sit in the audience during his Capitol Hill speech. There Donald Trump not only acknowledged the presence of Fred and Cindy Warmbier and their two remaining children but pledged to “honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.” The President also publicly stated that “after a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June – horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return.”
The Trump Administration went even further in signaling its support for the Warmbier family by having Vice President Pence invite Otto’s father Fred as his special guest to the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympic Games in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Pence then called for the “toughest sanctions” on North Korea and refused to stand when a joint North Korean-South Korean team entered the Olympic stadium. Mr. Warmbier told NBC News at the Games that North Korea was not participating in “the spirit of the Olympics.” Mr. Warmbier and his wife Cindy then filed a law suit in April against North Korea in Federal District Court in Washington, D.C. for the “torture and murder” of their son.
White House staff might have forgotten the significance of June 12 in U.S.-North Korean relations but you can be certain that the history-conscious North Koreans have not. President Trump, as you prepare to shake hands with the man whose regime you accused in January before the U.S. Congress of horribly injuring U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier to the verge of death, what of your public pledge to “honor Otto’s memory with American resolve?” Will you shake Kim Jong Un’s hand, as bloodied as that of Lady MacBeth’s, on the very anniversary date that Ambassador Joseph Yun began his sad journey home from Pyongyang with Otto’s dying body? Wil you do this without at least first asking Kim Jong Un to apologize for killing our Otto? You cannot make America great again without keeping your pledge to honor the memory of a great American.