Otto Warmbier’s father denounces North Korea as his son is treated in the hospital for a ‘severe neurological injury’

WYOMING, Ohio — Wearing the jacket his son Otto Warmbier wore at the sham trial that ended with his imprisonment in North Korea, Fred Warmbier denounced the “pariah” regime that had brutalized his son, and fought back tears Thursday as he remembered kneeling to hug him when he was returned to the United States. 

“The fact that he was taken and treated this way is horrible, and tough to process,” Fred Warmbier said. He declared that he was “tremendously proud” of his son and heaped scorn on North Korea. “They’re brutal and they’re terroristic,” he said. “We see the results of their actions, with Otto.”

Kelly Martin of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center told reporters at the news conference Thursday that Otto Warmbier is in stable condition but has suffered a severe neurological injury.

They spoke at Wyoming High School, in this small city near Cincinnati, where Otto Warmbier was salutatorian in 2013.

“This is a place where Otto experienced some of the best moments of his young life,” Fred Warmbier said, with two of his son’s former teachers at his side. His wife, Cindy Warmbier, was with her 22-year-old son at the hospital, he said, as she has been since he finally arrived home Tuesday night.

She wanted the world to know that Otto is a fighter. He fought to stay alive, through the worst the North Koreans could put him through, Fred Warmbier said, to be reunited with his family and the people he loves at home.

He thanked the people who supported the family through the 18-month ordeal with their thoughts and prayers, and those who helped get his son home, especially Trump administration officials.

Last night, President Trump called him, he said, asking how Otto was doing and urging him to take care of himself.

When asked if he felt the Obama administration had not done enough to help, he said, “I think the results speak for themselves.”

Warmbier said he wanted to highlight the bittersweet relief that his son is now home in the arms of those who love him — and anger that he was so brutally treated for so long.

The family went 15 months without a word from their son, he said, only to find out a week ago that he was in a coma all of that time. Even if people believe the North Koreans’ explanation —  “and we don’t,” he said — “there is no excuse for any civilized nation” to have kept his condition a secret and denied him medical care for so long.

He looked at the reporters crowded before him and said he knew they had many questions. “We have few answers,” he said. There’s no excuse for the way they treated his son, and no excuse for the way they treated others. He called on North Korea to release the other detainees.

He marveled at what his son endured, “the brutality, the terror he went through,” but said that doesn’t speak to who he is. “Otto is a sweet, loving, kind person,” he said, and friends and family in the room nodded, many with tears in their eyes.

Warmbier declined to give more details about his son’s medical condition or what caused the coma. “We’re trying to make him comfortable,” he said.

When news broke Tuesday morning that Otto Warmbier would be coming home, finally, after a year and a half of detention in North Korea, blue and white ribbons began appearing on trees in his home town. By noon, the entire stretch of the main street, shaded by branches arching overhead, had ribbons on every tree and every utility pole, hundreds and hundreds of them.

Support rises quickly, organically and quietly in this close-knit, loyal suburb of Cincinnati, said Lynn Tetley, the city manager. People take care of one another. And at a time when people were torn between extremes of joy and sorrow — the eldest son of a longtime family was free, but they had just learned he had been in a coma for more than a year — they wanted a way to show the Warmbiers that they are loved.

Caught in the midst of a story fraught with international animosity, at a time of intense national polarization, Wyoming is holding on to something simple: neighborliness.

Wyoming has a throwback feel, with big porches, rocking chairs and wicker sofas with plump pillows, hydrangeas bursting with blooms. There are Victorian houses with the trim picked out in bright colors, a stately brick middle school and dive-in movie nights at the city swimming pool. There are no crime alerts posted, but there is a curfew for teenagers and information about coyotes. The pastry shop has been there since 1934, the cashier at the meat market told a customer in scrubs, “Have a great trip, doc!” as she walked out, and the Independence Day parade has no politicians, just kids decorating their bikes, performing skits and building floats.

The 8,400 residents volunteer so many hours that the city literally has to turn people away, Tetley said, from civic boards and committees and events.

There are many families who have lived here for generations, as well as newcomers, doctors and professors and others drawn, often, by the reputation of the public schools. All the students at the small schools are Wyoming residents, kids who grow up together as neighbors and classmates.

So when one of their own had something unthinkable happen, Wyoming pulled in close.

“We’re all just focused now on providing privacy and any assistance we can to the family,” Tetley said. “We’re continuing to pray. Everyone wants so desperately for this situation to turn out well.”

Otto Warmbier was homecoming king and captain of the soccer team at Wyoming High. At the University of Virginia, he had a prestigious scholarship designed for the most “intellectually curious” students, a phrase that his friends said described him well. He had a rare sense of discipline, with a clearly delineated path to a future career in finance complete with a summer at the London School of Economics under his belt, enough credits to graduate as a sophomore, and, as a junior, the summer internship he wanted locked in by the fall.

“If he had an assignment he could sit down for 15 hours and focus on it and get it done,” his father said last month. “That was his gift.”

Once the work was done, friends said, he could be just as intensely fun, coming up with schemes, laughing loudly, surprising them with odd but strangely perfect gifts from thrift stores, making everyone feel just how delighted he was to see them.

Otto Warmbier (left) with friends Emmett Saulnier and Ned Ende (right) in May 2015 at the University of Virginia. (Sanjana Sekhar)

He had their backs.

And he wanted to see the world.

Warmbier had planned to visit North Korea for five days on his way to Hong Kong for a study-abroad trip with U-Va. But on his last night there, New Year’s Eve, he apparently tried to take down a large nationalist propaganda sign.


This picture taken and released from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 16, 2016, shows a scene from the trial of Otto Frederick Warmbier, who was arrested for committing hostile acts against North Korea, at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang. (Agence France-Presse/ KCNA )

He has received plenty of criticism from people who felt he should have had the common sense to stay away from a hostile country entirely. The actual repercussions were brutal: He was charged with “hostile acts against the state” and, in a semblance of a trial, sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

His last contact with the outside world was on March 2 of last year.

It was soon after the sham trial, apparently, that the healthy, athletic student lapsed into a coma. Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, helped secure his evacuation this week after U.S. officials were finally told that Warmbier was not well. A Gulfstream jet thundered onto a tarmac in Cincinnati late Tuesday night, and his family went on board to see him, at last, before he was carried out and rushed to the hospital.

Medical personnel and visitors gather at the nose of a transport plane carrying Otto Warmbier before he is transferred to an ambulance. (AP)

On Wednesday, Wyoming waited.

Children still clambered into emergency vehicles, honked horns and got sprayed by a firetruck hose at the city recreation center at a truck-touch event. Men mowed lawns. People played tennis at the city courts, watered their petunias, walked their dogs and babies, swam at the city pool, brought their kids to the civic center for a toy-brick-building festival in the evening.

But a small sign outside the civic center expressed the undercurrent: “Wyoming’s thoughts and prayers are with the Warmbier family.”

On Wednesday evening, a car slowed on a nearby block and the driver called out, “What are those for?” to people tying blue and white ribbons, the school colors, to trees.

“For Otto Warmbier!” a teenage boy answered.

“Thank you,” the man answered, “for doing that.”

A woman with the group said they were showing support for the family; they didn’t want to intrude at such a difficult time, and certainly didn’t want to be quoted by name. They just wanted the Warmbiers to see how many prayers were rising in the community, as they wait for news of his health.

Around another bend, a little before 7 p.m. as the sun was lowering into Wyoming’s leafy canopy, a woman and three children parked a van and jumped out. Tree by tree, pole by pole, they looped and knotted, looped and knotted. Then on to the next street, blue and white ribbons in hand.

Late Wednesday, city officials decided to open up the civic center to livestream the press conference so people in Wyoming could hear Fred Warmbier speak. Through word of mouth and social media, more than 300 gathered there Thursday morning, said Tetley, the city manager.

Tetley was driving the family home from the event and wasn’t sure whether they would want to stop, but they saw people lining the main street through town, holding their hands up in the Wyoming “W” shape, a high school cheer they meant to show their respect for the Warmbiers, she said.

The family got out. The father hugged some people, and there were “tears by everybody here,” Tetley said. “The family is just an incredible, beloved family.”