President Trump paid tribute in his State of the Union address to the family of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student detained as a tourist in North Korea and sent home in a coma after more than a year in prison for the “crime” of trying to take a propaganda poster for a souvenir. Warmbier died shortly after returning to the U.S.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and to our allies,” the president said in his January 30 speech to a joint session of Congress.
Turning toward Otto’s parents (Fred and Cindy) and siblings (Austin and Greta) sitting in the balcony of the U.S. Capitol chamber, he said, “You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength truly inspires us all.”
They buried their son, a University of Virginia junior, in June 2017 — days after he came home to Ohio in a coma after 17 months in prison.
The popular student was a soccer player and salutatorian in high school, a fan of rap music and sports, and an adventurous business student who aspired to become an investment banker. He was bound for a University of Virginia study abroad program in Hong Kong when he decided to undertake the North Korea tour beforehand.
Warmbier was arrested at the Pyongyang Airport in January 2016 as his group was about to depart after the five-day sightseeing tour.
“At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with ‘crimes against the state.’ After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June, horribly injured and on the verge of death,” the president said in his first State of the Union address.
After Warmbier’s arrest, North Korean television showed a taped “confession” in which the sobbing student admitted to taking the poster, apologized and pleaded for mercy, saying, “I have made the worst mistake of my life, but please act to save me, please. Think of my family.”
North Korea claimed Warmbier went into a coma from botulism and taking a sleeping pill. In September 2017, President Trump said “Otto was tortured beyond belief.”
Warmbier was among 16 Americans jailed in North Korea since 1996 for various reasons. Three are still in prison.
President Trump has rallied world leaders to keep applying maximum pressure to convince North Korea to denuclearize. As part of the administration’s maximum pressure strategy, the secretary of State designated North Korea a “state sponsor of terrorism” in November 2017.