The Korea Herald


[Contribution] Remembering Otto Warmbier: Legacy of curiosity, injustice, pursuit of accountability

By Korea Herald

Published : June 18, 2024 - 18:28

    • Link copied

Won Jae-chun (Photo courtesy of Won Jae-chun) Won Jae-chun (Photo courtesy of Won Jae-chun)

By Won Jae-chun, professor of International Law and Director of International Law, Handong Global University

Otto Warmbier, an American college student whose life was tragically cut short after his imprisonment in North Korea, remains a poignant symbol of youthful curiosity and the stark realities of international injustice. As we commemorate his life and reflect on his legacy, we are reminded of the importance of seeking truth, justice, and accountability.

Life full of promise

Otto Warmbier was a young man with an insatiable curiosity about the world. Born on Dec. 12, 1994, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Otto was known for his intelligence, warmth, and adventurous spirit. As a student at the University of Virginia, he excelled academically and socially, majoring in economics and being active in campus life. His friends and family remember him as someone with a bright future, eager to explore and understand the complexities of the world around him.

In December 2015, Otto decided to join a guided tour to North Korea, an unusual destination that piqued his curiosity. This trip was meant to be an eye-opening experience, a chance to see a different side of the world. However, it turned into a nightmare when Otto was accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.

Tragic turn of events

In January 2016, Otto was detained at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, just as he was about to depart the country. North Korean authorities charged him with "hostile acts against the state" and, after a one-hour trial, sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. The accusations and subsequent trial were widely condemned by international observers as a gross miscarriage of justice.

Otto's detention marked the beginning of an 18-month ordeal. In June 2017, he was returned to the United States in a comatose state, having suffered severe brain damage. Despite receiving immediate medical attention, Otto never regained consciousness and passed away on June 19, 2017. The exact circumstances of his injuries remain unclear, but his treatment during imprisonment was undoubtedly brutal and inhumane.

Family pursues justice

Otto's death was a devastating blow to his family, who channeled their grief into a relentless pursuit of justice. Fred and Cindy Warmbier, Otto's parents, have been vocal advocates for holding North Korea accountable for their son's death. Their efforts culminated in a landmark legal victory in December 2018 when a US federal judge ordered North Korea to pay $501 million in damages to the Warmbier family.

The judgment was a significant step toward acknowledging the atrocities committed by the North Korean regime. However, the challenge remained in enforcing the judgment and recovering the damages. In a notable development, the US seized a North Korean cargo ship, the Wise Honest, which was found to be violating international sanctions. The sale of the ship provided some financial restitution to the Warmbier family, symbolizing a measure of accountability.

Legacy, continuing efforts

Otto Warmbier's legacy is one of both tragedy and resilience. His story has shed light on the brutal realities faced by detainees in North Korea and has sparked international discourse on human rights violations. The Warmbier family continues to advocate for the dignity of their son and for broader human rights reforms. They have established the Otto Warmbier Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness about North Korea's human rights abuses and supporting efforts to hold the regime accountable.

In addition to advocacy, the Otto Warmbier Foundation provides scholarships to North Korean refugees. This initiative helps to advance the cause of human rights and democracy by supporting the next generation of leaders who have escaped the oppressive regime. Through education and empowerment, these scholarships aim to foster a brighter future for North Korean defectors and contribute to the global fight for freedom and human dignity.

NK responsibilities

The Otto Warmbier case underscores the need for North Korea to act with fairness and transparency regarding foreign detainees. North Korea owes a duty to share the facts about the Japanese abduction cases and to release the six South Korean detainees still held, including Christian missionaries Kim Jung-wook, Kim Kook-kie, and Choi Chun-gil. Their prolonged and unjust detention is a stark reminder of the ongoing human rights violations perpetrated by the North Korean regime. Releasing these individuals would be a critical step towards respecting human rights and responding to international demands for justice.

The quest for justice and dignity in Otto's name underscores the importance of remembering those who have suffered under oppressive regimes. It serves as a reminder that the fight for human rights and accountability is far from over. Otto Warmbier's story is a testament to the enduring spirit of those who dare to explore the world, even in the face of unimaginable adversity, and the relentless pursuit of justice by those who loved him.

As we remember Otto Warmbier, we honor his memory by continuing to advocate for a world where such tragedies are prevented, and where human dignity is upheld for all.


Won Jae-chun serves as a member of the 12-member, one-year term North Korean Human Rights Promotion Committee from March 2024 to March 2025, an advisory body to Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho. The views expressed in this article are his own. -- Ed.