SEOUL — Cindy Warmbier sent three huge Chinese-style lanterns up into the sky over Cincinnati on Dec. 12. “I love you, Otto,” she said as they floated away, imagining that her son, turning 22 that day, might see them from wherever he was being held in North Korea. Then she sang him “Happy Birthday.”
If ordinary Americans are alarmed about the current tensions with North Korea, imagine how Fred and Cindy Warmbier feel.
Through two nuclear tests and dozens of missile launches, while Kim Jong Un has been threatening to “ruthlessly ravage” the United States and President Trump has been sending warships to the Korean Peninsula, their son has been detained in North Korea.
“We’ve not seen or heard from Otto in 16 months,” Fred Warmbier said. He and his wife were speaking over Skype from their home in Wyoming, a Cincinnati suburb. “We don’t know if Otto still exists.”
When Otto Warmbier was detained Jan. 2 last year, U.S. officials advised them to remain silent to avoid antagonizing North Korea and prolonging their son’s detention, they said.
But they have had enough.
“The era of strategic patience for the Warmbier family is over,” said Fred Warmbier, echoing a line from top members of the Trump administration who have declared an end to the Obama-era policy of waiting for the North Korean regime to return to nuclear negotiations.
“With the last administration, Otto seemed to be an unwanted distraction, and they urged us to keep quiet,” Warmbier said. “Now the new administration is there, so we’ve decided to start speaking out.”
In recent years, North Korea has periodically detained U.S. citizens, some of them tourists and some of them Korean Americans involved in development work.
Previous detainees have been released after high-profile Americans — including former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — flew to Pyongyang to plead for them, giving the regime a propaganda victory. But North Korea has not even responded to offers to send someone for the current detainees, according to a person involved in the process.
Three Americans are being held in North Korea: former Virginia resident Kim Dong-chul, who was working in a special economic zone in the North; Tony Kim, a professor teaching for a month at a university in Pyongyang who was detained last week; and Otto Warmbier.
Then a 21-year-old economics major at the University of Virginia, Otto Warmbier decided to go to North Korea on his way to Hong Kong for a January study-abroad trip last year.
“He was curious about their culture, and he wanted to meet the people of North Korea,” Fred Warmbier said. He had done lots of research and decided on the Young Pioneers Tours travel company because it targeted young, adventurous people like him.
Although North Korea is one of the most isolated countries on the planet, it has been trying to encourage tourism in recent years, and a handful of companies regularly take groups there without incident.
The State Department, however, has steadily ratcheted up its travel warning for North Korea, noting the risk of arbitrary detention. The United States has no diplomatic relations with Pyongyang and is represented there by the Swedish Embassy.
On his final night in Pyongyang — New Year’s Eve — Warmbier appears to have gone to a staff-only floor of his hotel and attempted to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime.
He was charged with “hostile acts against the state,” and after an hour-long trial in March, sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor. That was the last time Warmbier was seen in public, and Swedish diplomats have been denied access to him since then.
In the absence of other information about him, some quarters of the Internet have been less than sympathetic to Warmbier. But he is not some reckless kid who went to North Korea on a lark, his parents say.
“This is somebody who has never been in trouble in his life,” Cindy Warmbier said. Her son was salutatorian at Wyoming High School and a National Merit scholar, captain of the soccer team and homecoming king.
The Warmbiers were wary about bragging about their son, but they said they want people to know what kind of person he is.
At U-Va., Otto Warmbier was in a program for top students. His mother remembered being struck when they first visited the university by its emphasis on the importance of seeing the world.
Otto Warmbier spent a summer studying at the London School of Economics and had enough credits to graduate as a sophomore. He already had passed the first level required to become a certified financial analyst and had been offered a job to start after graduation.
“Why would you say no to a kid like this?” Cindy Warmbier said. Plus, her son had traveled overseas several times, including to twice to Europe as well as to Israel, Ecuador and Cuba.
Until their son’s arrest, the Warmbiers had been living the archetypal American Dream.
Fred Warmbier went to work straight after high school, first in real estate. The Warmbiers now run a metal-finishing business whose clients include Whirlpool and General Motors, and Cindy Warmbier is studying for a master’s degree in management. They have a nice house and three children.
But they don’t know whether their oldest son is breaking rocks in a labor camp or sitting in some guesthouse in Pyongyang. Either way, Fred Warmbier said, “there’s no way that this crime reaches anywhere near this level of punishment.”
The Warmbiers acknowledge the enormity of the tensions between Pyongyang and Washington, but they are clearly frustrated by what they see as the low priority officials have placed on freeing their son.
“We know that the administration has been challenged by bigger issues than Otto, but we don’t understand why diplomacy on a different track to get Otto and the other detainees out can’t be going on at the same time,” his mother said.
The Warmbiers met this week with Joseph Y. Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea policy. A department spokesman said he had nothing to add beyond Yun’s private discussions with the family.
But the Warmbiers hope the new administration will put more emphasis on securing their son’s release.
“I’m hoping that there will be dialogue, because without dialogue, I don’t see how anything will be resolved,” Cindy Warmbier said. “And instead of focusing on the bigger issues, how about focusing on some things where there might be some resolution? Then you have a positive starting point.”
In the meantime, the Warmbiers have been trying to get on with their lives and enable their younger children, Austin and Greta, to get on with theirs. “If we are nonfunctioning and depressed, then they’ve not only imprisoned Otto, they’ve imprisoned us, too,” she said.
Her husband has been keeping a family journal, and they’ve been collecting souvenirs — a shirt from a family vacation in Hawaii, a Chicago Cubs jersey after the team won the World Series — so their son can catch up when he comes back.
“We miss him,” said Fred Warmbier, “and we’re going to get him back.”