Editor's note: The following column originally appeared on the website US Defense Watch.
University of Virginia student, Otto Warmbier, is a prisoner somewhere in the Orwellian hell hole known as North Korea. Otto Warmbier may be suffering a fate tantamount to an inmate of Dachau. At this very moment, Otto Warmbier may be starving, performing slave labor, being beaten or in fact, he may very well be dead.
The tragic fate of Otto Warmbier, is the tragic fate of the millions of North Koreans living in the Gulag Archipelago of Kim Jong Un’s totalitarian nightmare world.
Warmbier, 23, was convicted of conducting “hostile acts against the DPRK."
Mr. Warmbier was not an intelligence officer working for the CIA and his ‘hostile act’ was not sabotage or espionage.
The so-called hostile act against North Korea committed by college student Warmbier, (who was travelling with a tour group called Young Pioneer Tours), was purloining a propaganda poster off the wall of the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang with the inscription, “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”
If you are a religious person, you might want to say a prayer for Otto Warmbier.
Stealing or harming a poster or other items with the name or image of one of North Korea’s past or present lunatic asylum leaders is considered a serious crime against the state.
On January 2, Warmbier was arrested while in the process of departing North Korea from the Pyongyang airport. The other guests in his tour group all left the country without incident. On February 29, 2016, he “confessed” to stealing a piece of North Korean propaganda to take back to the United States as a “trophy” for someone from his home-town church who offered to pay him for it with the gift of a car worth $10,000.
On March 16, 2016, Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for committing what Warmbier thought was a harmless college prank that could provide him with a new car.
Warmbier was allowed to speak to the kangaroo court that sentenced him. He stated, obviously under emotional and perhaps physical duress:
“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country, I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life.”
As tensions with North Korea rise and the war drums beat, the State Department continuesto make efforts to one, find out Warmbier’s current location in North Korea, two, meet with him and three, to secure his release with the assistance of the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang.
The State Department released the following statement today:
The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the State Department. The Embassy of Sweden continues to request information on the exact location of Mr. Warmbier, and to request access for consular visits with him. However, representatives from the Swedish Embassy have not been granted consular access to Mr. Warmbier since the visit on March 2, 2016. The Department believes Mr. Warmbier’s sentence of 15 years hard labor is unduly harsh for the actions Mr. Warmbier allegedly took. Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases that the DPRK does just that. Mr. Warmbier has gone through the criminal process and has been detained for more than a year. We continue to urge the DPRK to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds.
The question remains: where is Otto Warmbier? Most distressingly, it is likely Warmbier is being incarcerated in one of North Korea’s penal labor camps for political prisoners known as the Kwalliso.
The internment camps are located in central and northeastern North Korea. They comprise many prison labor colonies in secluded mountain valleys, completely isolated from the outside world. The total number of prisoners is estimated to be 150,000 to 200,000. Yodok camp and Bukchang camp are separated into two sections: One section for political prisoners in lifelong detention, another part similar to re-education camps with prisoners sentenced to long-term imprisonment with the vague hope of eventual release.
The prisoners are forced to perform hard and dangerous slave work with primitive means in mining and agriculture. The food rations are very small, so that the prisoners are constantly on the brink of starvation. In combination with the hard work this leads to huge numbers of prisoners dying. An estimated 40% of prisoners die from malnutrition.
Moreover, many prisoners are crippled from work accidents, frostbite or torture. There is a rigid punishment in the camp. Prisoners who work too slowly or do not obey an order are beaten or tortured. In cases of stealing food or attempting to escape, the prisoners are publicly executed.
As inprisonment in North Korea’s gulag archipelago is life threatening, it is imperative that the State Department continues to lobby for Warmbier’s release, even as tensions continue to rise on the Korean Peninsula.
If you are a religious person, you might want to say a prayer for Otto Warmbier, who at this very moment may be suffering a fate worse than most can imagine.
Ray Starmann is the founder of US Defense Watch. He is a former U.S. Army Intelligence officer and veteran of the Gulf War. He was a contributing writer for several years at SFTT.org.