You’ve likely heard the story of Otto Warmbier during the final year of his life.
Warmbier was a 21-year-old American university student when he stopped for a few days in North Korea on his way to Hong Kong with a school group.
At his hotel, he snuck onto a staff-only floor of his hotel and stole a banner displaying a government propaganda slogan. He was caught on camera, and promptly arrested.
After a 1-hour sham trial, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a North Korean prison camp for this crime against the state.
When I first heard this story a little over a year ago, I was filled with a gut-wrenching mix of awe and despair.
His testimony is a confession, then an appeal for the forgiveness of the North Korean government, and finally a heartbreaking, tearful plea for mercy. Here’s a bit of that, if you’re feeling up to it:
Watching a peer of mine begging for his life in a sham court brings a few things to mind.
I think that, born into a world in which we have certain inalienable rights, we often take our right to speak and act freely, to offend with our beliefs and actions so long as they do not directly harm those others or their property, for granted.
In North Korea, offending cultural sensibilities is punishable by death.
Otto was finally brought home just weeks ago, in a bittersweet moment of triumph and heartbreak. He had suffered extensive brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen, and had fallen into a coma.
He was in that coma for over a year, kept alive by the North Korean government, whose medical capabilities are not up to modern standards.
Few expected him to emerge from that coma. But still, there was some hope.
Today, however, he died at the age of 22.
I’ve seen a lot of Internet folks say he deserved it. That he was stupid. That he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. That he definitely shouldn’t have been stealing.
There’s some truth to that mindset. It was a mistake – one that he should have realized might ultimately cost him his life.
But rather than dismiss this kid, who was only 22, after all, when he made this mistake, I firmly believe that he deserves a proper place in the memory of Americans and of humanity the world over.
Let the memory of Warmbier and his tragic tale be honored. Our citizens need to be made aware of the dangers involved with governments like these. Of allowing anyone too much power. Of the dangers of assuming that our own privileges are universal. Of the dangers, in some parts of the world, of offending other peoples’ cultural sensibilities.
There are efforts, even in Western nations like our neighbor to the North, to use government force and punishment to control how people speak, how they think, what they believe.
May Warmbier’s memory live on, and his family find some peace in a cruel world.
Credit for cover image goes to ABC News. You’ll find the article from which I originally pulled it here. It’s a powerful image that shows Warmbier during his sham trial, pleading for mercy and for his life.