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“Otto’s death was not in vain”: what is said in the new investigation into the arrest and death of a student in the DPRK

The American, accused of stealing a poster in Pyongyang, died in 2017, but details of his arrest, rescue and death appeared only a year later.

Otto Vombier at his last press conference. Reuters photo
Otto Vombier at his last press conference. Reuters photo

In June 2017, a 22-year-old student Otto Vombier, who spent the previous 18 months in a North Korean prison, died in a hospital in Ohio. Pyongyang authorities accused the young man of trying to steal a patriotic poster from the hotel, where he stayed. For this, the American was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but he returned home much earlier. In the unconscious state and with irreversible brain damage.

The tragic story of Vombier became one of the main themes of the summer of 2017: largely because of questions that remained unanswered. Did Otto really try to steal the poster? How did the American authorities save him from confinement? How did he look in the last hours and what happened to him after the prison sentence was passed? These questions were answered by the American journalist Doug Clark (Doug Clark), who spent more than six months investigating the details of the death of Vombier.

Who Wombier was and how he got to prison

Otto Vombier was born in December 1994 in Ohio to a Republican family. He perfectly studied at school, won the Olympics and was well versed in mathematics, and in parallel engaged in football and swimming. In addition to everything, on the graduation he was chosen by the king of the ball. After school, Vombier entered the University of Virginia as a “banker” and continued to play sports. According to his friends and acquaintances, the student company always believed that in the future it will be a great success.

For the New Year holidays the American decided to get acquainted with another culture: first to see Hong Kong, and then the DPRK. On the Internet, he quickly found a travel agency working on North Korea, chose a five-day tour for 1200 dollars and flew from China to Pyongyang. On arrival, North Korean border guards confiscated cameras and telephones from the entire tourist group to check for banned materials. And then Vombiera was allowed to enter the country.

Otto with his parents after graduation. Photo from the Vombierov family archive
Otto with his parents after graduation. Photo from the Vombierov family archive

Most likely, the young student did not know where he got to. First of all, tourists were shown the American warship Pueblo, which was captured by the DPRK troops in 1968. Since then, it has become a kind of landmark and proof of the country’s triumph over the “imperialist enemy.” All 82 crew members were captured and held captive for about 11 months. Realizing that he is actually on the territory of the ideological enemy, Vombyer wilted.

When it was noticed by other members of the group, consisting mainly of Europeans, Australians and Americans, they encouraged Vombier and jokingly began to call him “the imperialist enemy.” Soon the student again forgot about the danger and just enjoyed the journey – for example, playing snowballs with North Korean children. On New Year’s Eve, the American went with the company to the bar, and then returned to the hotel Yangakto. This reinforced concrete 47-storey building is considered one of the main attractions of Pyongyang with a thousand rooms, a swimming pool, a karaoke, a bookstore, a tennis court, a golf course and a bowling alley.

Otto Vombier (in the far left row) while traveling. Photos from the personal archive of the American
Otto Vombier (in the far left row) while traveling. Photos from the personal archive of the American

Inside the hotel the company dispersed: someone continued to drink at the bar, others went to play bowling or to study the building. It was at that moment that Voombier’s friends lost sight of him for about two hours. What happened to the student during this time is unknown. Already after his arrest, the authorities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea announced a recording from a video surveillance camera, where a certain person removes a propaganda poster from the wall, saying that behind it stood Vombier.

During the television broadcast, under surveillance of escorts, an American read through a piece of paper that he put on his “best boots for stealth” and planned to donate a “trophy” to the Protestant church in the US, thereby undermining the values ​​of North Korean citizens. In this story there were inconsistencies – for example, the Vombier family considered themselves to be Jews, therefore the connection between Otto and a certain Christian church is vague.

Recording from a CCTV camera, on which a certain person removes a poster from the wall

On the morning of January 1, after the alleged “theft”, the tourists left for the airport to return home, but during the passport check, two policemen approached Voombier and silently took him by the arm. “Well, this is the last time we see you,” joked one of the American friends, believing that Otto was detained because of some little formality. In response, he laughed and went quietly with the two men in uniform.

What happened after the detention of Vombiere and how he was rescued

As soon as the tearful Vombyer spoke to the television cameras, confessing in an attempt to undermine the North Korean system through the theft of a poster, the State Department of the United States already formed an opinion on what had happened. First, the DPRK will make Otto’s story a propaganda symbol of victory over the American regime, and then sent to prison and will use it as a way to bargain for itself the best conditions in negotiations with Washington.

15 years of hard labor – so much Otto Vombier received for, as the authorities of the DPRK argue, an attempt to steal a North Korean poster.

At that time, relations between the United States and the DPRK were in critical condition, and both countries did not even have ambassadors. Instead, he had to deal with North Korea with the Swedish ambassador, while Washington was trying to find the right person. When the situation began to improve, the presidential election broke out and the unexpected victory of Donald Trump. The newly-formed administration immediately decided to concentrate on getting Wombier out to earn political points.

In place of the former negotiator came Joseph Yun (Joseph Yun) – an experienced policy specialist in the DPRK, who by early 2017 managed to establish contact with Pyongyang on the issue of Otto. The case was interrupted by the case: in February, in Malaysia under mysterious circumstances, a cousin Kim Jong-un was poisoned , who left the country a few years earlier. This situation has led to a new disagreement in political relations, and negotiations to save the 21-year-old boy are bogged down.

To discuss the release of Otto returned in April, and in June, Yun learned for the first time that Vombier did not regain consciousness. “I was in complete shock,” the specialist recalled. When he reported on the state of the student Donald Trump, the president ordered as soon as possible to go to Pyongyang and return the prisoner home. He did so, but the task was not so easy to accomplish.

In the DPRK, the disruption of the patriotic poster is a serious violation, which for local people turns into either execution, or prison term and numerous tortures. Therefore, the North Korean side did not want to let Otto go despite the gravity of his offense. Eventually, Yun persuaded the Pyongyang party of the need to look at Voombier, who was in a closed hospital to treat politicians and foreign diplomats.

Inside the closed chamber was a pale and, as it were, an inanimate man with a feeding tube, the ends of which went into his nostrils.

As explained by North Korean doctors, Vombier arrived to them in this state a little more than a year after the conclusion: studies have shown that the young man’s brain is badly damaged. After spending an hour with him, the American side resigned itself to the fact that Otto was in a coma: his basic reflexes were still working, but he did not regain consciousness. Representatives of the DPRK took a receipt from experts from Washington that Vombyer was well treated (he was really in a well-groomed and clean chamber), but he was never allowed to take him home.

Then, Yun took advantage of the last trump card, threatening to fly out of the DPRK to Japan until the end of the day. Together or without Vombier. Such an ultimatum risked turning into a complete breakdown of the deal, so a few hours later the North Korean side lost – the student was loaded into a plane and sent back to his homeland. There was no celebration on board: Americans only occasionally looked at the young man’s body, lying on a stretcher, and changed his diaper.

What happened after the return of Vombier

“We are trying to create comfortable conditions for him,” Fred Vombier said almost immediately after his son’s return. The man blamed the administration of Barack Obama for not taking measures to get the young man out before, and he thanked for the help of Donald Trump. Sometimes, when Fred was talking about his son, he involuntarily talked about him in the past tense. This scene looked even more tragic for those who knew about Fred’s activities in recent months.

In an attempt to get his son back, he traveled to Washington several times to meet with high-ranking officials, and when that did not work, he went to Fox News. The man knew that Trump loves watching this TV channel, so he came to one of the programs and asked the president: “I ask you, return my son home. You can change the course of this story. ” Soon after, the US leader ordered the young man to return to his homeland.

When he returned in a coma, the American doctors immediately decided that botulism and a pill of sleeping pills could not bring the young man to such a state as the North Korean authorities claimed. When Fred was shown his son, he hardly recognized him: his once neat teeth were very twisted, and a large scar appeared on his leg. Then the newspaper The New York Times referring to the American high-ranking official said that Voibiera was regularly beaten in the detention.

48 hours after the return, the doctors decided that Otto would never regain consciousness, and advised him to disconnect him from the artificial feeding device. The boy’s parents spent the next six days at his bedside. And then Vombier died.

The Americans are waiting for the arrival of the aircraft from Otto on board. At that time, information about his condition was not disclosed. Photo by Bryan Woolston
The Americans are waiting for the arrival of the aircraft from Otto on board. At that time, information about his condition was not disclosed. Photo by Bryan Woolston

Recovering from grief, the Wombers accused North Korea of ​​”terrorism” and a deliberate attack on their son, relying on possible signs of torture. This version was actively supported by the Trump administration, submitting as evidence of the DPRK’s threat. However, the subsequent examination of the body did not reveal obvious signs of torture or violence. The student’s teeth really moved, most likely because of the pliers, but the scar on his leg did not point to anything concrete. At the same time, brain analysis showed that both hemispheres were dying simultaneously – in other words, they suffered from oxygen starvation.

“His body was in excellent condition. I’m sure that he had to be watched for days to maintain the skin in this state, “says Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco, who analyzed Otto. Although his parents forbade an autopsy, the student’s bones scan showed no visible trauma. Since then, there are no new details about the main cause of the death of Vombiere. Sammarco believes that in the near future this will remain a mystery.

We will never know, unless the people connected with it do not act and say: “That’s what happened.”

Lakshi Sammarco
doctor

Hypotheses and versions of what happened to Vombier in prison

The motives of the DPRK

“North Korean prisons are hell. We had fewer rights than dogs. They often beat us and we were so hungry that they could catch a mouse in the camera and eat it, “says an unnamed GQ interlocutor. Such stories are not uncommon in the DPRK, but, according to the author of the investigation into the fate of Vombier, he escaped such a fate. Instead of a damp cellar with rods, he probably woke up in a hotel room, like many American political prisoners before him.

Probably the first two months of the student were constantly interrogated. Not so much for the sake of extracting useful information, but for the sake of knocking out the necessary testimony from it. In the past, the North Korean special services already used this tactic, although no one who was captured by an American never complained of torture by the DPRK. According to the South Korean intelligence agents, the authorities of the neighboring state are very serious about the welfare of foreign prisoners, because they know that they will have to be released one day.

Mysteriousness of the death of Wombier

The list of reasons that led to the death of a student is narrowing even more if you know that Otto did not get into a work camp. Usually foreigners are sent there to keep them stressed, but not “confused” with ordinary prisoners. According to the hospital staff, where the student was, he was brought there almost immediately after the court verdict in March 2016.

In the photographs after the trial it is clear that the young man is barely able to stand on his feet and partly relies on escorts. If we assume that this condition is caused not by despair and depression from the severity of the sentence, then perhaps the sluggish state is provoked by a slowly flowing disease. Upon arrival at the hospital, the American was immediately connected to an artificial life support device, as this was the only way to save his life.

Reuters photo
Reuters photo

As many American and South Korean experts on the DPRK say, the likelihood that Vombiera was beaten is close to zero. Kim Jong-eun would never risk the life of a valuable “resource” that could change the course of relations between the US and the DPRK, GQ’s interlocutors believe. The more incomprehensible is the unexpected cause of the disease and the sudden death of a young man.

Possible suicide

To assess the likelihood that Wombier tried to commit suicide, it is worth considering his condition after the sentence. A young man with a great future and a beloved girl in his homeland is sentenced to 15 years in prison in a foreign country, destroying his life and plans. Even if the American had not directly encountered torture and beatings before, he certainly thought that it was possible. Coupled with psychological pressure, such thoughts could lead him to a deep depression.

At least two Americans are known to have attempted to commit suicide in North Korean captivity. One of them, after an unsuccessful attempt to cut the veins, broke the thermometer and drank mercury. Later he explained that he despaired of waiting for help from his native country. Even after a safe return home, the soldier continued to suffer a post-traumatic syndrome and died seven years later with a self-immolation. Another prisoner of war also tried to commit suicide after returning home.

The role of the tragedy in US-DPRK relations

On the day when Vombier died, the level of relations between the United States and the DPRK once again collapsed to a critical level. None of the countries managed to earn worthy political points, because Otto’s “return” turned out to be a tragedy. Despite this, in June 2018, about a year after the death of an American student, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un held a summit where they agreed on joint cooperation with each other. There was a “thaw”.

For the supporters of Trump, this news has become proof that the president’s policies are working. For Kim Jong-un, this became an opportunity to break out of political isolation. At the same time, one of the first questions at the Trump press conference at the end of the meeting concerned Otto Vombier. The reporter asked why the president started praising the North Korean leader, although he is partly responsible for the death of the student.

Otto Vombier is a very special person. I think, without Otto, this would not have happened (the summit). Otto’s death was not in vain.

Donald Trump
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