The parents of a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for nearly a year and a half, then died just days after he returned home in a coma, lashed out at Pyongyang in their first television interview since their son’s death and called on North Korea to be listed as a state sponsor of terror.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier appeared Tuesday on “Fox & Friends,” saying they’d had time to do some healing in the three months since they buried their 22-year-old son, Otto.
“But now we see North Korea claiming to be a victim and that the world is picking on them, and we’re here to tell you: North Korea is not a victim,” Fred Warmbier said. “They’re terrorists. They kidnapped Otto. They tortured him. They intentionally injured him. They are not victims.”
Warmbier was arrested in January 2016 at the end of a brief tourist visit to the isolated country. This past June, he was medically evacuated and was being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center when he died.
“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the Warmbiers said in a written statement after his death.
North Korea denied that Warmbier had been tortured and tried to cast his death as a “mystery.”
“The fact that Warmbier died suddenly in less than a week after his return to the U.S. in his normal state of health indicators is a mystery to us as well,” a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted by the official Korean Central News Agency in June. “To make it clear, we are the biggest victim of this incident.”
North Korea claimed Warmbier slipped into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill and that he was provided proper medical care.
On Tuesday, the Warmbiers vehemently pushed back against North Korea’s claims, sharing the utter shock and grief they felt meeting their comatose son at the airport.
“We walked over to the plane; the engines are still humming,” Fred Warmbier said. “When we got halfway up the steps, we heard this howling, involuntary, inhuman sound. We weren’t really certain what it was. … Otto was on the stretcher across in the plane, and he was jerking violently, making these inhuman sounds.”
Fred Warmbier said his wife and daughter ran off the plane, while he and his other son walked over to the stretcher. Otto Warmbier now had a shaved head, a feeding tube emerging from his nose, and was blind and deaf.
“As we looked at him and tried to comfort him, it looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth,” Fred Warmbier said.
“They destroyed him,” Cindy Warmbier added, shaking her head. Within two days, their son’s fever spiked to 104 degrees; there was a large scar on his right foot, they added.
“Our image of Otto, as you know, was of someone just wonderful, beautiful inside and out. And to see how he came home was too much for us,” Cindy Warmbier said, her voice breaking. “I almost passed out, but I got it together, and I rode in the ambulance with him, because I did not want him to be alone anymore.
“He’d been alone for way too long. And we stayed with him and loved him as best as we could.”
In late 2015, Warmbier traveled with a tour group to North Korea on his way to a study-abroad program in Hong Kong but was not allowed to leave the country. After a sham trial in 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for what North Korea called “hostile acts against the state.”
Shortly after that, apparently, Warmbier was injured. He was denied consular visits, and his family had no word of him after March 2016, until they were told this June that he had been in a coma for more than a year. He was medically evacuated and arrived back in Cincinnati for treatment June 13.
Doctors said Warmbier had suffered extensive loss of brain tissue, consistent with cardiopulmonary arrest, and was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness. They were unsure what had caused the brain damage: He did not show any obvious indications of trauma, nor evidence of either acute or healing fractures. However, they also were not aware of anything from his previous medical history, before his time in North Korea, that might have caused cardiopulmonary arrest.
Warmbier died less than a week later, on June 19.
“We weren’t prepared for what we had, and then when we saw Otto the way he was, we loved him, we’re proud of him — but no mother, no parent should ever have gone through what we went through,” Cindy Warmbier said Tuesday on Fox News. “And the fact that Otto was alone, all that time, with no one to comfort him, is inexcusable. Whatever happened — I mean, why would you do this?”
She added that she felt he had only been sent home because he was about to die.
Fred Warmbier reiterated that North Korea should be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
“It was astounding to Cindy and I to discover that North Korea is not listed,” he said. “ … We owe it to the world to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terror.”
The State Department “strongly warns” U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea, “due to the serious and mounting risk of arrest and long-term detention of U.S. citizens.”
A State Department official told The Washington Post the department holds North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s “unjust imprisonment” and extended condolences to his family.
The review of intelligence from North Korea was an “ongoing process,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under State Department rules for briefing reporters.
“As a matter of law, in order for any country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. These designations are made after careful review of all available evidence to determine if a country meets the statutory criteria for designation,” the official said. “The Department of State will take immediate action if credible evidence supports North Korea’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism under the statutory criteria.”
North Korea used to be on the department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, placed there in 1988 for selling weapons to terrorist groups and its involvement in the 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight over the Andaman Sea. But North Korea’s designation was removed in 2008 by President George W. Bush for meeting all the requirements for nuclear inspections. There have since been growing calls for the Trump administration to re-list it.
Shortly after the “Fox & Friends” interview aired, President Trump made it clear he had been watching by tweeting his approval of the segment.
Carol Morello contributed to this report.