US rage: father lashes out at North Korea

“Brutalised and terrorised”: Otto Warmbier is led away after his televised trial in March 2016. © Getty

‘North Korea is a pariah regime. They’re brutal and they’re terroristic’ says the father of a US student freed by North Korea this week in a coma. Will this push a horrified nation to war?

Prom king. Varsity soccer player. National Merit scholar. “Just a good, funny dude.”

When 21-year-old Otto Warmbier went to North Korea in December 2015, he was a successful all-American kid going on an adventure holiday. On Tuesday, after a year and a half of imprisonment in the Hermit Kingdom, he came home in a coma.

During his holiday, Warmbier was arrested and accused of trying to steal a propaganda sign from his hotel. After a brief show trial, during which he tearfully pleaded for mercy, he was sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour.

What happened next is mysterious. North Korean official claims that Warmbier came down with food poisoning, was given a sleeping pill, and slipped into a coma. It says it released him “on humanitarian grounds”.

However, a senior US official told The New York Times that Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten. His parents insist he was “brutalised and terrorised” by his captors. Images of his unconscious body being carried out of the plane have shocked America.

Communist North Korea has been at odds with the West ever since it split from the capitalist South in the 1950s. In recent years it has threatened its enemies with missile launches and nuclear tests. Past US presidents have failed to curb its aggression.

Donald Trump’s administration has called the country “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security”. But the new president’s strategy remains unclear. He has said he would consider meeting the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un — something no president has done before — and is pressuring Kim’s ally China to help find a diplomatic solution.

Yet Trump has simultaneously taken a tougher stance than his predecessors. He has sent military reinforcements to the Korean peninsula, and warned of a “major, major conflict”. It is in the midst of this escalating tension that Warmbier was released.

North Korea often holds Americans hostage (it currently has three). According to experts, however, it rarely abuses them physically. Warmbier’s case is unusual. Should we read anything into this?

Checkered Korea

North Korea is afraid, say some. It wants to avoid war at all costs, as it knows it would be crushed. Hostages are only useful as bargaining chips, which is why they are kept in good shape. Something went badly wrong with Warmbier. The country has sent him back, apologetic and humiliated, hoping to avert disaster.

Quite the opposite, reply others. Kim’s regime thrives on antagonising the West — that is how it maintains legitimacy. Warmbier is a walking symbol of America. His captors brutalised him to shame and provoke their enemy. With a president as unpredictable as Trump, the worry is that America could take the bait.

You Decide

  1. Should Trump approach North Korea through diplomacy, force or both?
  2. The US government “strongly warns US citizens not to travel to North Korea”. Is Warmbier partly to blame for his situation?


  1. Write a country profile for both North and South Korea. Include crucial information about their history, society and culture.
  2. Class debate: “This house believes that Kim Jong-un is crazy.”

Some People Say...

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”

— Michael Corleone

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Warmbier was arrested at the airport on January 2nd 2016, as he prepared to leave North Korea. In a speech that was likely scripted, he confessed to his crime, and said he was part of an official US plot to bring down “the foundation of [North Korea’s] single-minded unity”. He is now in hospital in his hometown of Cincinnati, still in a coma that has apparently lasted over a year.
What do we not know?
What caused the coma and whether Warmbier will recover. North Korea’s official explanation is botulism, a kind of food poisoning that does not generally lead to comas. It is hoped that the US superior healthcare will help Warmbier get better, although experts say that if he really has been unconscious for this long, the chances of a full recovery are slim.

Word Watch

National Merit
A highly competitive scholarship programme for American students entering university.
Adventure holiday
Around 5,000 Western tourists visit North Korea every year, generally with a tour company that helps them navigate the country’s very strict rules.
Hermit Kingdom
A nickname for North Korea that refers to its self-imposed isolation from the world. The name was also applied to the Korean kingdom in the premodern era.
Propaganda sign
A state-run North Korean news agency released a grainy clip of a person removing something from the wall. It is unclear whether Warmbier did what he was accused of. Past hostages have been forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
Show trial
A public trial set up to sway public opinion, rather than judge the defendant in a legitimate way.
Korea was split into two states after the Korean War (1950–53), in which the Soviet- and China-backed North fought the West-backed South, ended in a stalemate.
Two were arrested in the last two months and accused of “hostile acts”. The third was detained in 2015 for unclear reasons.


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