The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Father of Otto Warmbier, who died after being held in North Korea, will attend the Olympics Opening Ceremonies

Vice President Pence speaks during a joint news conference with Hwang Kyo-ahn, South Korea's acting president and prime minister after a meeting in Seoul on April 17, 2017. (SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg News)

SEOUL — Fred Warmbier, the father of Otto Warmbier, an American student who was jailed in North Korea and who died last year after returning to the United States, will attend the Olympics Opening Ceremonies as a guest of Vice President Pence this week.

Pence will leave Monday for a five-day trip to Japan and South Korea, his second trip to Asia since taking office.

His trip, which will culminate with a stop at the Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea — where he will lead the U.S. 2018 Winter Olympic delegation — is focused almost exclusively on continuing the United States' pressure campaign on North Korea, White House officials said.

At the Olympics, Pence is expected to combat North Korea’s propaganda efforts and reiterate President Trump’s stance that all options are on the table until North Korea halts its nuclear ambitions.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier attended Trump's State of the Union address Tuesday as guests of the president and first lady Melania Trump, a tribute to their son that was among the most moving moments of the evening.

“You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires truly us all,” Trump said to the Warmbiers as they sat in the audience, their younger children Austin and Greta behind them. “Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto's memory with total American resolve.”

Fred Warmbier told The Washington Post afterward that the experience had been “very emotional” but that they “felt good” about the president honoring their son.

Warmbier, then 21 and from Cincinnati, was a student at the University of Virginia studying in Hong Kong at the beginning of 2016. He stopped in Beijing on the way and joined a New Year's Eve tour to North Korea with a travel company targeting young people. It advertises “budget tours to destinations your mother wants you to stay away from!”

But he was arrested as he went to leave North Korea and later charged with “hostile acts against the state.” It transpired that, early on New Year's morning, he had gone to a staff-only floor in his Pyongyang hotel and taken down a propaganda sign lauding the regime of Kim Jong Un.

After a sham trial, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor and was last seen at his sentencing, clearly emotional.

Shortly afterward, Warmbier lost consciousness for reasons that are still not explained. North Korea says he suffered an allergic reaction to his food.

But the regime did not disclose his condition until June 2017, after he had been in a coma for 15 months.

He was medically evacuated from Pyongyang and taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was found to have severe brain damage. He died several days later but the exact cause of death is still not known. The Warmbiers declined an autopsy.

The Warmbiers had criticized the Obama administration for not doing enough to bring their son home and credited Trump with getting him back.

“The era of strategic patience for the Warmbier family is over,” Fred Warmbier told The Post last year, criticizing the Obama-era policy of waiting for the North Korean regime to return to nuclear negotiations.
Otto Warmbier's treatment at the hands of the North Koreans has become a symbol for the regime's brutality. It was a leading factor behind the administration's decision to last year ban Americans from traveling to North Korea unless they are aid workers or journalists and have special permission from the State Department to travel.

The House passed a sanctions act bearing Otto Warmbier's name but the bill has stalled in the Senate.

Parker reported from Washington.