I can’t stop thinking about Otto Warmbier. Maybe it’s because I have a college student of my own, and maybe it’s because he looked so vulnerable and alone when he appeared in public, in a North Korean court, to hear his inconceivable fate. And of course it’s because I know his parents have been suffering tremendously since his ordeal began, and with his death Monday.
Around the world on any given day, people suffer from illness, from abuse, from terror, from oppression, from incarceration. The people of North Korea suffer daily and anonymously, imprisoned in a black and white nation where there is no exposure to the outside world, punished severely, even by death, for the smallest crimes ― like stealing a political poster. We tend not to think about the fate of these people. When we think of North Korea, we think about Leader Kim Jong Un’s regime – his missile launches, his military parades, his threat to us.
Even in our own country, we have become inured to murder, as often as it occurs. Gun violence claims thousands of American lives every year, and mass shootings have become a regular occurrence. But sometimes, we get a glimpse into a particular life. We are given a name, a face, the details of that life, the testimony of grieving relatives. We know enough about Philando Castile to be moved and angered by his story. And to remember his name and face.
We know enough about Otto Warmbier, too.
Warmbier was young, and we can see that in his face in those court videos. He was only 21 when he was arrested, 22 when he came home to his family. He was a student at the University of Virginia, where he was working toward a double major in commerce and economics. He loved to travel. We can debate the wisdom of Warmbier’s parents allowing him to go with a tour group to North Korea. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We can only hope that his story will discourage other Americans from traveling to a country that has no respect for human life or the rule of law.
After Warmbier came home to Ohio in a coma, a 2014 video re-circulated on social media of a young woman named Yeon-mi Park who escaped from North Korea to China and then South Korea as a girl, a feat of courage I cannot fathom. Her speech to a One Young World conference underscores the day-to-day terror of living in North Korea, and is worth your time. Later Park wrote a book about her many ordeals and became a student at Columbia University, a rare happy ending for someone born in the dystopian country she describes in stark detail.
The details of the end of Otto Warmbier’s life ― and the mystery of the prior 17 months ― are so tragic that they are difficult to talk about. What mother or father doesn’t feel his pain and the pain of his family in the knowledge that Otto died after horrendous treatment by a barbaric regime? Who in this country can really understand the thoughts and nightmares his family have had to endure? That there is probably nothing the United States can do to rectify the situation or punish the killers must compound their pain tremendously. I can only imagine the anger the Warmbiers must feel in the midst of their grief.
The Warmbier family will likely never receive the justice they deserve. But I can only hope that in the months and years ahead, they find some peace. They should know that we Americans will not forget Otto Warmbier’s name, or his kind, young face, any time soon.