Waiting to Study Abroad? Remember Otto Warmbier

Jack P. Carroll ’24

Contributing Writer

If there is one skill that any of us have gained from the challenges that the COVID-19 related travel guidelines have imposed, it is the persistent ability to conduct thorough research and strategically plan prior to making any important travel decisions. 

As colleges and universities in the U.S. consider the future of their international study programs, it is important for students (my peers included) to use their pandemic-enhanced research skills to make well-informed travel decisions when deciding where to study in a post-pandemic world. 

Prior to selecting a country or region to spend a semester, students should take note of the existing laws, political climate, and social norms of the country in which one chooses to study. A failure to conduct such necessary research and act in accordance with the collected information could impose potentially grave consequences to one’s individual safety, health, and overall well-being. 

In order to truly grasp the severity of the perilous consequences that are associated with poor-informed travel decisions, let us recount the devastating death of Otto Warmbier, a former undergraduate student at the University of Virginia, who passed away in 2017 after having traveled to North Korea the previous year. 

Otto, a particularly adventurous student with a penchant for traveling, decided to make a trip to North Korea, en route to Hong Kong, where he had initially planned to complete a study abroad program. The trip to North Korea was arranged with the highly questionable travel group, Young Pioneer Tours, whose website states that the company offers “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” 

Pyongyang, the capital and largest city of the North Korean dictatorship renowned for starvation, strict national security laws, labor camps, and government-imposed murder, was the destination of travel for Otto and his peers. Despite initially having reservations about the trip, Otto’s parents, nevertheless, allowed him to leave. Otto’s mother, Cindy Warmbier, highlighted her thoughts when allowing Otto to travel to North Korea: “Why would you say no to a kid like this?” 

To his mother’s defense, Otto was an intelligent and academically-driven young man whose extensive traveling background made him all-the-more qualified to undertake the trip. Otto, who was once described as a “math whiz,” was the Salutatorian of his graduating high school class and attended the University of Virginia on a scholarship. Pursuing a double major in economics and commerce, Otto was intent on becoming a banker. Furthermore, he had previously traveled to Israel, Cuba, Ecuador, and Europe where he completed a foreign exchange program at the London School of Economics. 

Unfortunately, “no” might have been the better answer as, early on in their travels, on the night of New Year’s Eve in 2015, only some days after the group had left Beijing for the trip, Otto went missing. That night, after returning from a day of touring and sightseeing, the Young Pioneers split up to drink and bowl at their hotel of choice: The Yanggakdo International Hotel. According to Danny Gratton, a British member of the traveling tour group, it was during this time at the hotel, late at night, when there was a “two-hour window” in which no member of the Young Pioneers could account for Otto. It would not be until 4:30 AM the following morning (New Year’s day) that Gratton would find Otto asleep in their shared room. However, the story does not end there. 

The following day, Jan. 2, 2016, prior to departure at the Pyongyang International Airport, Otto was arrested by two guards. Over a month after his arrest, Otto, who was still in the custody of North Korean officials, appeared in a press conference in which he confessed to attempting to steal a propaganda poster from the restricted area of the second floor of the Yanggakdo hotel. 

Otto’s arrest and subsequent confession were prompted by (albeit low quality) surveillance footage obtained by the hotel, which displays a shadowy and indiscernible figure stripping a poster from the wall on the floor. 

Despite the widespread uncertainty and speculation amongst global media as to the figure in the video indeed being Otto, and whether his confession was authentic or given under duress by the North Korean government, Otto was tried and convicted of subversion under Article 60 of North Korea’s Criminal Code on Mar. 16, 2016. 

In June of 2017, at the command of President Donald J. Trump, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson secured the release of Otto from his imprisonment in North Korea. 

However, from the time he arrived in the US and was evacuated to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, Otto remained in a persistent vegetative state. There, doctors disproved North Korean claims that Otto had contracted botulism and, instead, found that Warmbier experienced a profound loss of brain tissue 

Furthermore, it was determined that Otto did not suffer from torture and after being removed from a feeding tube, he passed away in the hospital on June 19, 2017 at the age of 22 years old. 

While the true recount of Otto’s travel to North Korea and his subsequent death remains ambiguous and subject to scrutiny and debate, I believe that all readers can agree that the death of Otto Warmbier was devastating for his family and a tragic blow to the community that supported him. 

Hopefully my peers entering and returning to college who, like Otto, are intelligent, ambitious, and eager to build their futures and enjoy their young adult lives, are able to see themselves in Otto and in turn recognize the widespread feeling of grief and tragedy left by his death as a constant reminder to make educated and safe decisions when studying abroad in the future. 

While many of us may not be able to prevent the widespread death that continues to become a disturbingly integral part of our lives amidst the continued and rampant spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, we can begin to prevent the loss of human life in a post-pandemic society by encouraging our friends and loved ones to become well-informed, responsible, and thoughtful individuals before making any important decisions in their travels and other life pursuits. 

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