Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk
The death of Otto Warmbier provides a powerful reminder of the torture and terrorism perpetrated by one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Americans are no doubt aware of the tyranny of the dynasty led by a man who revels in ordering the development of long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads to the U.S., but how many know about the suffering of the millions who have died in his gulag system?
Nor do Americans, saddened by the tragic death of a college student with whom many can empathize, remember that hundreds have been held for years in North Korea, mostly fishermen but also the crew and passengers of a hijacked Korean Air plane and dozens more kidnapped off remote beaches. Almost no one, moreover, comprehends the torture the regime inflicts on those guilty of about anything that offends the ruler.
That’s just one reason why the death of Warmbier is so suspicious. After he arrived in his native Cincinnati, comatose but breathing, doctors were sure the North Koreans were lying when they said he’d been in a coma for months after taking a sleeping pill while ill with a rare disease known as botulism. Judging from the damage done to his brain, he had experienced something more sinister.
The best analysis is that North Korean experts, highly skilled in fabricating lethal biological and chemical warfare weapons fully capable of annihilating as many people as nuclear bombs, had been charged with wiping out his memory.
What for? Surely nothing as simple as the crime of stealing a propaganda banner would warrant such punishment. For that matter, why would this crime have merited 15 years’ hard labor?
Initially, after Warmbier was seen crying and acknowledging “the worst mistake of my life” at a staged press conference in Pyongyang a month after his arrest, the assumption was some American big shot would bring him home. Wasn’t that exactly what two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and the national intelligence director, James Clapper, had done for other imprisoned Americans?
Warmbier’s offense, however, is believed to have been far more serious than leaving a bible around or entering illegally across the Tumen River.
What could he have done? The thinking now is that he not only tore down the banner but defaced it, maybe scrawling an obscenity, decorating it with a caricature of “Respected Leader” Kim Jong-Un or his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il, or even urinating on it.
It would be one thing to make off with a banner as a prank but quite another to defile the image of leaders before whose towering statues foreign visitors bow respectfully on the first stop of a typical four-or-five-day tour.
What if this kid, once released, then spread tales of what he’d really done? That could not happen. They might beat him up and frighten him to make him stand weak-kneed at a press conference, propped up by guards, and say what he was ordered to say, but he had a lot more coming. No way could they let him go home only to brag about the sacrilege he had committed.
North Korean mind-alteration experts had already shown their skills by all they did to Robert Park, a Christian pastor who had crossed the Tumen River on Christmas eve of 2009 with a message of “love and forgiveness” urging Kim Jong-Il to “stop the genocide.” Park was expelled 43 days later after having been abused by screaming North Korean women who injured him in ways he would not discuss when I met him a few years ago and later talked to him by telephone. Park is believed to have been administered drugs that have led him to threaten suicide.
And, lest we forget, North Korean experts concocted the deadly VX cocktail that their clever agents got two massage girls to smear over the face of Kim Jong-Un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-Nam, in Kuala Lumpur International Airport earlier this year.
Obviously, the North Koreans could not honor the request of the Swedish embassy, representing U.S. interests in Pyongyang, to see Warmbier while they were engaged in a mind-alteration experiment.
Not until he had gone comatose, probably a few weeks ago, were they ready to get rid of him. Even if they left him breathing, he would have no tales to tell.
Donald Kirk has visited North Korea nine times over the years. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.