When Danny Gratton met Otto Warmbier in Beijing in late December 2015, they were on their first day of a tour to North Korea that only one of them would successfully complete. On the tour’s last day, Gratton was the only Westerner to see Warmbier detained by North Korean security services, the beginning of an 18-month ordeal for the 21-year-old American student, who finally returned to the United States in a coma this week.
Until now, Gratton has not spoken publicly about the case. He was never contacted by the U.S. government or the tour company that arranged the visit. His recollections form a part of the story that speaks to Warmbier’s innocence and further undermines the North Korean government’s version of events. His message is that Warmbier was an innocent victim of a cruel and evil regime and did nothing to warrant his sad fate.
“Otto was just a really great lad who fell into the most horrendous situation that no one could ever believe,” Gratton told me in an interview Thursday. “It’s just something I think in the Western world we just can’t understand, we just can’t grasp, the evilness behind that dictatorship.”
A sales manager in his mid-40s from a small English town called Stone in Staffordshire, Gratton traveled to North Korea for the adventure of it, he said. He joined a four-day, three-night tour with a company called Young Pioneers Tours. Gratton met Warmbier in Beijing just before their flight, and the two struck up a friendship.
“When we got to Pyongyang, we were the two single guys, so it seemed logical for us to be put in the same room,” Gratton said. “So basically from the time we got to Pyongyang to the time I left him, we were together.”
Warmbier stood out in the group because he was so young, Gratton said. The two bonded that first night over a couple of beers.
“I got to know Otto really, really well,” he said. “He was such a mature lad for his age.”
Their second night in Pyongyang was New Year’s Eve and the whole group went out into the city square before coming back to the hotel for more drinking. This is the night that Warmbier allegedly committed the offense inside the hotel for which he would later be given a sentence of 15 years hard labor.
The charge was that Warmbier allegedly went into a staff-only area of the hotel and tore down a propaganda banner hanging on the wall, intending to steal it. Two months later, North Korean state media broadcast a staged event showing a tearful Warmbier confessing to that crime and begging for forgiveness, clearly under duress.
Gratton said that in the four days they spent together, Warmbier never said anything about a banner and that he saw zero evidence that Warmbier was planning any such act — quite the opposite. The first Gratton heard of the alleged attempted theft was when it was mentioned in news reports weeks later. Gratton and Warmbier weren’t together 24 hours each day, but they traveled together during the day and hung out each night.
“I’ve got nothing from my experiences with him that would suggest he would do something like that,” he said. “At no stage did I ever think he was anything but a very, very polite kid.”
The first time Gratton saw any sign of trouble was when the pair were among the last to go through security at the Pyongyang International Airport in the early morning of Jan. 2, 2016. They were running late because the hotel had mysteriously and uncharacteristically missed their wake-up call.
After handing their passports to the immigration officer, there was a lull, followed by the appearance of two North Korean security officials, who took Warmbier to a private room. Gratton assumed it was a routine check or another form of mild harassment because Warmbier was American.
“No words were spoken. Two guards just come over and simply tapped Otto on the shoulder and led him away,” Gratton said. “I just said kind of quite nervously, ‘Well, that’s the last we’ll see of you.’ There’s a great irony in those words.”
“That was it. That was the last physical time I saw Otto, ever. I was also the only person to see Otto taken away,” Gratton said. “Otto didn’t resist. He didn’t look scared. He sort of half-smiled.”
When the group got to the Beijing Capital International Airport, the tour guide called back to her colleague in Pyongyang, who by that time had been summoned to the airport and was with Warmbier, according to another person on the plane, who overheard the call.
Warmbier spoke on that call and said to the guide that he had a severe headache and wanted to be taken to the hospital, the other passenger said. Repeatedly, Warmbier told the guide he couldn’t travel because he felt ill. Neither Young Pioneer Tours nor the tour guide responded to requests for comment.
Gratton said Warmier showed no signed of illness that day. Perhaps the North Koreans were trying to delay any public acknowledgement of his arrest, he speculated. It was 20 days later that they finally announced he was being detained and being accused of a “hostile act.”
Gratton has stayed in contact intermittently with Warmbier’s parents over the past year-and-a-half. He said he was “stunned” nobody from the U.S. government or the tour group ever tried to contact him to ask him if he had any information about what happened.
His message is that no one should blame Warmbier for his predicament. Even if he did take down the banner, it’s irrelevant because the consequences have been so horrendously out of proportion, he said.
“No one deserves that. He was just a young lad who wanted a bit of adventure,” he said. “Every once in a while they single out someone to make a point, and this was just Otto’s turn. It’s so sick and warped and unnecessary and evil.”