The strange case of Otto Warmbier: what happened in Pyongyang?

Otto Warmbier broke down during his trial in March 2016.

Otto Warmbier broke down during his trial in March 2016. Photo: AAP

A 22-year-old American student detained in North Korea for stealing a propaganda banner died on Tuesday, shortly after returning home to his family in Ohio following 17 months in jail.

On January 2, 2016, Otto Warmbier was taken into custody at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport after taking a slogan banner from his Pyongyang hotel.

The University of Virginia student was visiting North Korea as part of a five-day tour organised by a Chinese operator. He said his interest in communist nations lead him to visit the rogue state before commencing a stint studying in Hong Kong.

During his trial in early 2016, Mr Warmbier appeared distraught but in good health as he confessed to stealing the banner as a “souvenir” and begged the court for forgiveness.

In what many believed to be a pre-scripted confession, Mr Warmbier claimed he had been encouraged to take the banner in exchange for a reward by a philanthropic organisation acting on behalf of the US government.

“I never, never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country,” he said.

“I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!”

He was found guilty of “subversion” and committing a hostile act and sentenced to 15 years hard labour.

Watch footage from Otto Warmbier’s trial

Shortly after the trial, according to North Korean officials, the then-21-year-old slipped into a coma.

They said Mr Warmbier contracted a case of botulism and took a sleeping pill, causing him to fall into the coma.

But doctors who treated Mr Warmbier upon his return to the United States said he had sustained a “severe neurological injury” with “extensive loss of brain tissue in all regions of the brain”, likely due to a heart attack caused by a prolonged loss of blood flow to the brain.

Hospital tests showed no sign of botulism, nor did they return any evidence of “an acute or healing fracture, including the skull”, doctors said.

When he returned to the US on June 13, he was in a state doctors described as “unresponsive wakefulness”. Photographs captured him being carried off a plane in Cincinnati by two men.

Mr Warmbier’s parents believe their son, one of three children, was beaten to death and have accused the Pyongyang government of torturing him.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the Warmbier family said in a statement on Tuesday morning (AEST).

Senator John McCain echoed the family’s concerns, tweeting that Mr Warmbier had been “tortured and murdered by North Korea”.

“In the final year of his life, he lived the nightmare in which the North Korean people have been trapped for 70 years,” the Republican senator said.

Following his passing, Mr Warmbier’s family is choosing to focus on the “brilliant young man” they knew and loved.

“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person,” they said in a statement.

In keeping with his parents’ wishes, a video of an upbeat, healthy Mr Warmbier delivering a speech at his high school graduation has been circulating online.

– With ABC

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