Otto Warmbier’s family and friends laid him to rest on Thursday, at a funeral in Ohio, after North Korea’s Kim regime destroyed Otto’s life and devastated his family.
Warmbier went to North Korea in late December, 2015, a 21-year-old American college student, on a short package tour. He was arrested there on Jan. 2, 2016, and accused of taking a propaganda sign off a wall in his Pyongyang hotel in the early hours of Jan. 1. On Feb. 29, 2016, Warmbier was presented publicly to deliver a forced “confession,” and just over two weeks later, on March 16, 2016, again on camera, he was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor. It took more than a year before his family, or the American public, heard any further news of what had happened to him.
As we learned only this month, shortly after Warmbier received North Korea’s hideous sentence he suffered brain damage so extensive that when North Korea finally released him early last week, at the demand of the Trump administration, he arrived home on June 13 to his family in Cincinnati in what his American doctors called a condition of “unresponsive wakefulness.” He was unable to see, speak or make any sign of conscious response. By North Korea’s much belated account, provided via U.S. envoys to Otto’s parents early this month, Otto had been in that condition, in North Korean custody, for well over a year. Surrounded by his family, six days after his return, Otto died this past Monday.
This awful display of Pyongyang’s raw and manifold official cruelties leaves a stricken family in Cincinnati mourning their horribly murdered son. It ought to drive home to all Americans the unrelenting monstrosity of North Korea’s totalitarian Kim Jong Un regime.
Yet, there’s a qualifier that keeps creeping into the U.S. press coverage of this story, a touch of ersatz journalistic due diligence, which suggests that too many American reporters have yet to grasp the full extent of North Korea’s totalitarian horrors. This qualifier, to which too many journalists seem wedded in mentioning Otto’s “confession,” is that they’re not sure whether Otto was coerced.
To pick just one of many examples, in an NBC news article about Otto, published June 22, up pops that phrase: “it was not apparent whether his confession was coerced.” Or, as NPR put it on Feb. 29, 2016, immediately after North Korea first released Otto’s “confession”: “It’s unclear whether Warmbier, 21, spoke of his own volition or whether he was pressured into making the statement.”
Actually, there is nothing unclear about it. Isolated from family, friends or any form of genuine defense, held under terrible threat, in utterly hostile surroundings, Otto gave a forced confession. He was clearly coerced. As his father, Fred Warmbier, accurately told the press last week, Otto was “brutalized and terrorized” by the North Korean regime.
To entertain any doubt, you have to be willing to believe that a 21-year-old American college student, raised in Ohio, imprisoned in Pyongyang, surrounded by his North Korean jailers, after eight weeks of being held there incommunicado, would freely and without fear volunteer, before the cameras of his inquisitors, make statements such as this, from Warmbier’s “confession”:
I have been very impressed by the Korean government’s humanitarian treatment of severe criminals like myself, and of the very fair and square legal procedures in the DPR Korea.
Or, the following, complete with syntax and jargon right out of the North Korea official state mouthpiece playbook:
On the early morning of January 1, 2016 I committed my crime of taking out the important political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel, aimed at harming the work ethic and the motivation of the Korean people.
Or this paragon of North Korean propaganda:
My dear U.S. citizens, seeing is believing, as the proverb goes. Please, come to Pyongyang, which one United States citizen long ago called an Eastern Jerusalem.
Warmbier appeared at this “interview” (as North Korea labeled it) seated under portraits of North Korea’s late tyrants Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il (grandfather and father, respectively, of current tyrant Kim Jong Un). He gave a statement, and was then asked questions by reporters from state media outlets of North Korea (Korean Central News Agency, and Rodong Sinmun), Russia (TASS) and China (Xinhua), plus a woman working for a pro-North Korean newspaper based in Japan, the Choson Sinbo. As it happened, his answers included some of the potted North Korean propaganda phrases above. A free-wheeling press conference this was not.
Nor should we attach any credibility to the bizarre story, shot through with North Korean propaganda-speak and weird details, that Warmbier was clearly forced to tell. This included an account of how, in preparing to harm “the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people” by stealing a propaganda sign, he had packed his “quietest boots” for his trip to Pyongyang, the boots that would be “best for sneaking” — the better to sneak into the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel to commit a “crime” he described as “very severe and preplanned,” involving inducements such as “my crime attempt offer” from a moneyed methodist church deaconess, the CIA …and so forth.
Amid the details of this elaborate, concocted and coerced “confession,” it’s impossible to tell whether there’s any truth to the charge that Warmbier took a sign off a wall — nor, in the grotesque world of North Korea’s official fictions, does it really matter. The reality, as in George Orwell’s 1984, is whatever Big Brother says it is. Two plus two equals five.
For the farcical “trial” that Kim’s regime inflicted on Warmbier, North Korean authorities came up with a video that showed a blurry figure taking a sign off a wall, and putting it on the floor. In North Korea, where the ruling party controls all information and defines “justice” and “evidence” to suit its own needs, such a video could have been produced before or after Warmbier’s arrest, with or without Warmbier.
To all this we can add the accounts of Americans who were ultimately released (or, in effect, ransomed) after being imprisoned in North Korea — and once back in a free country have explained that they were forced by North Korea to make bizarre “confessions.”
To be sure, there was one element to Warmbier’s “confession” that did not sound coerced. That was his affection for his family, his statement that he was worried about them, and his plea, at the end, for mercy: “Please, think of my family.”
Other than that, the transcript of Warmbier’s 2016 “confession” reads like a case study for Totalitarianism 101. And reporters should say so. While journalism school cookbooks may warn with good reason against leaping casually to conclusions, there are some phenomena — such as the sun rising in the East, or North Korea forcing “confessions” from terrorized prisoners — that deserve to be described without caveats.