The death of an American student after a trip to the DPRK: details and inconsistencies of the tragic history
In June, 2017-year-old student Otto Wombier died in a hospital in Ohio who spent the previous 22 months in a North Korean prison. Pyongyang authorities accused the young man of trying to steal a patriotic poster from the hotel where he was staying. For this, the American was sentenced to 18 years of hard labor, but he returned home much earlier. Unconscious and with irreversible brain damage.
The tragic story of Wombiera was one of the main themes of the summer of the 2017 year: largely because of the questions that remained unanswered. To clarify the details of this case, tried the American journalist Doug Clark, who is more than six months investigated details of the death of Wombiera, writes TJ.
Who was Wombier and how did he go to prison
Otto Wombier was born in December 1994 of the year in Ohio into a Republican family. He was a great student at school, won the Olympiad and was well versed in mathematics, and at the same time he was engaged in football and swimming. On top of that, at the prom he was chosen the king of the ball. After high school, Wombier entered the University of Virginia in the specialty "banker" and continued to play sports. According to his friends and acquaintances, they have always believed that in the future he will be a great success.
On New Year's holidays, an American decided to get acquainted with a different culture: first see Hong Kong, and then the DPRK. On the Internet, he quickly found a travel agency operating in North Korea, chose a five-day tour for 1200 dollars and flew from China to Pyongyang. Upon arrival, North Korean border guards confiscated cameras and telephones from the entire tourist group to check for prohibited materials. And then Wombiera was allowed into the country.
Most likely, the young student then did not know where he went. First of all, the tourists were shown the American warship Pueblo, which was captured by the DPRK troops in 1968 year. Since then, it has become a kind of landmark and proof of the triumph of the country over the "imperialist enemy." All 82 crew members were captured and held in captivity for about 11 months. Realizing that he is actually in the territory of the ideological enemy, Wombier collapsed.
When other members of the group, consisting mainly of Europeans, Australians and Americans, noticed this, they cheered Wombiera and jokingly called him an "imperialist enemy." Soon, the student again forgot about the danger and just enjoyed the journey - for example, playing snowballs with North Korean children. On New Year's Eve, the American went to a bar with the company, and then returned to the Yangkakto hotel. This reinforced concrete 47-storey building is considered to be one of the main attractions of Pyongyang with a thousand rooms, a swimming pool, karaoke, a bookstore, a tennis court, a golf course and a bowling alley.
Inside the hotel, the company dispersed: someone continued to drink at the bar, others went to play bowling or explore the building. It was at that moment that Wombier’s friends lost sight of him for about two hours. What happened to the student during this time is unknown. Already after his arrest, the DPRK authorities released a recording from a video surveillance camera, where a certain person was taking a propaganda poster off the wall, saying that Wombier was behind it.
During a television broadcast under the supervision of escorts, an American read from a piece of paper that he put on his “best shoes for stealth” to steal and planned to donate a “trophy” to a Protestant church in the United States, thereby undermining the values of North Korean citizens. There were some inconsistencies in this story - for example, the Wombiera family identified themselves as Jews, therefore the connection between Otto and a certain Christian church is vague.
In the morning of January 1, after the alleged “theft”, the tourists left for the airport to return home, but during the passport check two policemen approached Wombiera and silently took him by the arms.
“Well, this is the last time we see you,” one of the American’s friends joked, believing that Otto was delayed because of some small formality. In response, he laughed and calmly went along with two men in uniform.
What happened after the arrest of Wombiera and how he was rescued
As soon as the weeping Wombiera appeared before the television cameras, admitting in an attempt to undermine the North Korean system through the theft of a poster, the US State Department had already formed an opinion about what had happened. First, the DPRK will make a propaganda symbol of victory over the American regime out of Otto history, and then sent to prison and will be used as a way to bargain for themselves the best conditions in negotiations with Washington.
15 years of hard labor - received so much Otto Wombier for, according to the DPRK authorities, an attempt to steal a North Korean poster.
At that time, relations between the United States and the DPRK were in critical condition, and both countries did not even have ambassadors. Instead, the Swedish ambassador had to communicate with North Korea while Washington was trying to find the right person. When the situation began to improve, the presidential election struck and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump. The new administration decided to concentrate on rescuing Wombier.
Joseph Yun, an experienced DPRK policy specialist, came to the place of the former negotiator, and by the beginning of 2017, he was able to establish contact with Pyongyang regarding the issue of Otto. A case intervened in the negotiations: in February, under mysterious circumstances, my cousin Kim Jong-un was poisoned, who had left the country several years before. This situation led to a new rift in political relations, and negotiations about saving the 21-year-old boy were bogged down.
Otto returned to the discussion of rescue in April, and in June Yun learned for the first time that Wombier did not regain consciousness.
“I was completely shocked,” recalls the specialist.
When he reported on the status of a student to Donald Trump, the president ordered him to go to Pyongyang as soon as possible and return the prisoner home. He did so, but it was far from easy to complete the task.
In the DPRK, the disruption of a patriotic poster is a serious violation, which for the local people turns out to be either a penalty or a prison sentence and numerous tortures. Therefore, the North Korean side would not want to let Otto go because of the severity of his offense. In the end, Yun convinced the Pyongyang side of the need to look at Wombier, who was in a closed hospital for the treatment of politicians and foreign diplomats.
Inside the closed chamber there was a pale and, as it were, lifeless man with a feeding tube, the ends of which went to his nostrils.
As North Korean doctors explained, Wombier arrived to them in this state a little more than a year after the conclusion: studies showed that the youth’s brain was badly damaged. After spending about an hour with him, the American side resigned to the fact that Otto was in a coma: his basic reflexes were still working, but he did not regain consciousness. Representatives of the DPRK received a receipt from Washington experts that Wombier was well treated (he was indeed in a well-kept and clean ward), but was not allowed to take him home.
Then Yun took advantage of the last trump card, threatening to fly out of the DPRK to Japan by the end of the day. With or without Wombier. Such an ultimatum risked turning into a complete breakdown of the deal, so a few hours later the North Korean side gave way - the student was loaded onto a plane and sent home. There was no celebration on board: Americans only occasionally looked at the body of a young man on a stretcher and changed his diaper.
What happened after the return of Wombiera
“We are trying to create comfortable conditions for him,” Fred Wombier stated almost immediately after his son returned.
The man blamed the administration of Barack Obama for not taking steps to rescue the young man earlier, and thanked Donald Trump for his help. Sometimes, when Fred talked about his son, he involuntarily spoke about him in the past tense. This scene looked even more tragic for those who knew about the activities of Fred in recent months.
In an attempt to return his son, he went to Washington a dozen times to meet with high-ranking officials, and when that didn’t work, he went to Fox News. The man knew that Trump loves to watch this channel, so he came to one of the programs and addressed the president: “I ask you, bring my son home. You can change the course of this story. ”
Shortly thereafter, the leader of the United States and ordered the prisoner to return the young man to his homeland.
When he returned to a comatose state, the American doctors immediately decided that botulism and a sleeping pill could not bring the young man to such a state as the North Korean authorities claimed. When Fred was shown his son, he barely recognized him: his once neat teeth curved severely, and a large scar appeared on his leg. Then the newspaper The New York Times, citing an American high-ranking official, said that in prison, Wombiera was regularly beaten.
After 48 hours after the return, the doctors decided that Otto would never regain consciousness, and they advised him to disconnect him from the artificial feeding apparatus. The young man’s parents spent the next six days by his bed. And then Wombier died.
Having recovered from the grief, the Wombieri accused North Korea of “terrorism” and a deliberate attack on their son, relying on possible signs of torture. This version was actively supported by the Trump administration, serving as proof of the threat to the DPRK. However, a subsequent body examination revealed no obvious signs of torture or violence. The student’s teeth actually shifted, most likely due to pliers, but the scar on his leg didn’t point to anything specific. At the same time, analysis of the brain showed that both hemispheres died at the same time - in other words, they suffered from oxygen starvation.
“His body was in excellent condition. I am sure that he should have been monitored for days in order to maintain the skin in this state, ”says Dr. Lakshmi Sammarko, who conducted the Otto analysis.
Although his parents forbade an autopsy, the student’s bones scan showed no noticeable injuries. Since then, new details about the main cause of death of Wombiera not. Sammarko believes that in the near future it will remain a mystery.
“We will never know, unless the people associated with it come forward and say, 'This is what happened,'” the doctor said.
Hypotheses and versions of what happened to Wombier in custody
“North Korean prisons are hell. We had less rights than dogs. They often beat us and we were so hungry that we could catch a mouse in the cell and eat it, ”said an unnamed interlocutor of GQ.
Such stories are far from uncommon in the DPRK, but the author of the investigation into the fate of Wombiera believes that he avoided such a fate. Instead of a damp basement with bars, he probably woke up in a hotel room, like many American political prisoners before him.
Probably the first two months the student was constantly interrogated. Not so much for the extraction of useful information, but for the sake of knocking out the necessary readings from it. In the past, North Korean intelligence agencies have already used similar tactics, although no captured American has ever complained of torture by the DPRK. According to South Korean intelligence agents, the authorities of the neighboring state are very serious about the well-being of foreign prisoners, because they know that one day they will have to be released.
The mysteriousness of the death of Wombiera
The list of reasons that led to the death of the student is narrowed even more if you know that Otto did not fall into the labor camp. Usually foreigners are sent there to keep them in a stressful state, but at the same time do not “mix” them with ordinary prisoners. According to employees of the hospital where the student was, he was brought there almost immediately after a court sentence in March 2016.
In the photographs after the trial, it is clear that the young man barely keeps his feet and partially relies on the escorts. If we assume that this state is not caused by despair and depression from the severity of the sentence, then perhaps the sluggish state is provoked by a slow-flowing disease. Upon arrival at the hospital, the American was immediately connected to the artificial life support apparatus, since this was the only way to save his life.
As numerous American and South Korean North Korean experts say, the likelihood that Wombier was beaten is close to zero. Kim Jong-un would never have risked the life of a valuable “resource” capable of changing the course of relations between the United States and the DPRK. The more incomprehensible is the unexpected cause of the disease and the sudden death of a young man.
To assess the likelihood that Wombier tried to commit suicide, it is worth considering his condition after the verdict. A young boy with a great future and a girlfriend in his homeland is sentenced to 15 years in prison in a foreign country, destroying his life and plans. Even if the American had not directly encountered torture and beatings before, he probably thought that this was possible. Coupled with psychological pressure, such thoughts could bring him to deep depression.
At least two Americans are known who tried to commit suicide in North Korean captivity. One of them, after an unsuccessful attempt to cut the veins, broke a thermometer and drank mercury. He later explained that he was desperate to wait for help from his native country. Even after a safe return home, the military continued to suffer from post-traumatic syndrome and died seven years later, setting up a self-immolation. Another prisoner of war also attempted suicide after returning home.
The role of tragedy in relations between the United States and the DPRK
On the day that Wombier died, the level of relations between the United States and the DPRK once again collapsed to a critical level. None of the countries managed to earn decent political points on what happened, since the “return” of Otto turned into a tragedy. Despite this, in June 2018, about a year after the death of an American student, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un held a summit, where they agreed to work together. The “thaw” has begun.
For Trump's supporters, this news was proof that the president’s policy is working. For Kim Jong-un, this was an opportunity to break out of political isolation. At the same time, one of the first questions at the Trump press conference following the meeting was on Otto Wombier. A reporter asked why the president began to praise the North Korean leader, although he was partly guilty of the student’s death.
“Otto Wombier is a very special person. I think, without Otto, this would not have happened. Otto's death was not in vain, ”Donald Trump replied then.
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