Trump honors family of late Otto Warmbier during State of the Union address

Portrait of man and woman (White House)
Cindy and Fred Warmbier lost their eldest child, Otto, to the harsh treatment meted out by North Korea for trying to take a propaganda poster. (White House)

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.”

Crowd of people clapping for two people in the center crying (© Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
Cindy and Fred Warmbier, whose son Otto died after being released from a North Korean prison, hold back tears after President Trump’s State of the Union tribute. Otto’s siblings, Austin and Greta, stand behind them. (© Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Otto Warmbier bowing his head while flanked by two guards (© Kyodo/Reuters)
Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student imprisoned for trying to steal a propaganda poster, confessed and pleaded for mercy but was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor. He died after North Korea released him in a vegetative state. Trump said Warmbier’s case showed the “depraved character” of North Korea’s dictatorship. (© Kyodo/Reuters)

“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.”

People carrying coffin followed by mourners (© AP Images)
Fred and Cindy Warmbier and their other son and daughter watch as Otto’s casket is placed in a hearse after a funeral attended by 2,500 mourners in Wyoming, Ohio, on June 22, 2017. The 22-year-old University of Virginia junior had gone to North Korea on a short sightseeing tour, after which he planned to study abroad in Hong Kong. (© AP Images)

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.