In GQ, Doug Bock Clark digs deep into the story of Otto Warmbier, the 21-year-old American college student who was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, and was eventually sent back to the U.S. with severe brain damage. How he sustained the damage remains an unknown, but the Trump administration has a vested political interest in claiming it was a result of torture — even if the medical evidence doesn’t back that up.
Instead, in the vacuum of fact, North Korea and the U.S. competed to provide a story. North Korea blamed Otto’s condition on a combination of botulism and an unexpected reaction to a sleeping pill, an explanation that many American doctors said was unlikely. A senior American official asserted that, according to intelligence reports, Otto had been repeatedly beaten. Fred and Cindy declared on TV that their son had been physically tortured, in order to spotlight the dictatorship’s evil. The president pushed this narrative. Meanwhile, the American military made preparations for a possible conflict. Otto became a symbol used to build “a case for war on emotional grounds,” the New York Times editorial board wrote.
As the Trump administration and North Korea spun Otto’s story for their own ends, I spent six months reporting—from Washington, D.C., to Seoul—trying to figure out what had actually happened to him. What made an American college student go to Pyongyang? What kind of nightmare did he endure while in captivity? How did his brain damage occur? And how did his eventual death help push America closer toward war with North Korea and then, in a surprising reversal, help lead to Trump’s peace summit with Kim Jong-un? The story I uncovered was stranger and sadder than anyone had known. In fact, I discovered that the manner of Otto’s injury was not as black-and-white as people were encouraged to believe. But before he became a rallying cry in the administration’s campaign against North Korea, he was just a kid. His name was Otto Warmbier.