Death of Jailed U.S. Student Draws Condemnation, Vows to Hold North Korea Accountable

Activists say Otto Warmbier case underscores the urgency and depth of North Korea's rights problems.

U.S. college student Otto Warmbier is escorted by a North Korean guard at his show trial in Pyongyang, March 16, 2016.

The death of Ohio college student Otto Warmbier just days after was returned in a comatose state after 17 months in a North Korean jail drew widespread condemnation in the United States and vows to hold Pyongyang accountable.

Human rights advocates who work on North Korea said the death on Monday of the 22-year-old University of Virginia student underscored the severity of the problems posed by the regime of leader Kim Jong Un.

Warmbier died Monday at a Cincinnati hospital, nearly a week after his return to the United States in what doctors called a "state of unresponsive wakefulness" caused by a prolonged cutoff of oxygen to the brain.

"Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today," Warmbier's parents said in a statement.

Warmbier was detained in January 2016 at the end of a short package tour of North Korea for what authorities said was trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. He was charged with “hostile acts” and given a sentence of 15 years hard labor in a show trial in March of last year, then not heard from until North Korea told a U.S. diplomat he was in a coma.

Response in Washington was swift across the political spectrum and held North Korea to blame for the death.

"Otto's fate deepens my administration's determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim," said President Donald Trump.

Sen. Benjamin Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said "Otto is dead because of Kim Jong-un's repressive, murderous regime," and that North Korea "must be held accountable for their continued barbaric behavior."

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement saying: "Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime. . . . The United States of America cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers."

"We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment, and demand the release of three other Americans who have been illegally detained," added Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Tillerson was referring to two teachers from Pyongyang University of Science and Technology: accounting teacher Tony Kim, who was arrested in April; and agriculture researcher Kim Hak-song. Businessman Kim Dong-chul has been serving a 10-year sentence of hard labor on spying charges since April 2016.

Making a bad relationship worse

In South Korea, activists who advocate for better human rights in North Korea urged people to think about how Pyongyang treats its own citizens in light of Warmbier's death.

“How are North Koreans doing if the regime commits human rights violations against foreigners? I think the North Korean people are suffering more and more everyday violence," Mun Dong-hee, a North Korean Human Rights Student Solidarity representative, told RFA's Korean Service.

"The death of Warmbier has given us once again an indication of how cruel the North Korean regime is,' said Peter Cheong, of the group Justice for North Korea.

"North Korean authorities are still systematically violating human rights at the national level," he told RFA.

Warmbier's return and death occurred as the Trump administration was rethinking the U.S. approach to North Korea, considering opening contacts with Pyongyang, while also stepping up pressure on China to do more to curb its ally's missile and nuclear programs. The U.S. Congress is also debating ways to tighten financial sanctions on the Kim regime to deny it resources to advance its weapons programs.

The U.S. Congress is now weighing ways to stop Americans from traveling to North Korea, including North Korea Travel Control Act, which would require licenses for travel to North Korea and exclude tourists from being eligible for such permits.

"We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea," Tillerson told a House of Representatives committee last week. "We haven't come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it."

McCain said Americans should be required to sign a waiver before going to North Korea, arguing that "if people are that stupid that they still want to go to that country, then at least they assume the responsibility for their welfare."

"There should at least be a form for them to fill out that says, 'If I go to North Korea, I understand I am taking great risk, and I do not hold the American government responsible,'" McCain was quoted by the Associated Press as saying on Tuesday.

Whatever gain North Korea had hoped to extract from the United States seizing and later releasing Warmbier, the plan has failed, said Ken Gause, of the Virginia think tank CNA's Center for Strategic Studies.

"The relationship was already bad. This just makes it worse," he told RFA.

"North Korea was trying to play its normal game -- take somebody hostage and release them at an opportune time in order to try to bolster the relationship. But of course, Otto Warmbier was in a coma and now he's dead and that pretty much undermines the relationship for the foreseeable future," added Gause.

Reported by RFA's Korean Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.