One year later, little is known of Otto Warmbier's circumstances in North Korea

Wyoming grad was sentenced to 15 years
One year later, little is known of Otto Warmbier's circumstances in North Korea
Posted at 7:00 AM, Jan 04, 2017
and last updated 2017-01-04 07:38:47-05

CINCINNATI -- Since his arrest and imprisonment in North Korea early in 2016, Otto Warmbier exists only within the security and political machinery of that hermetic nation and in the hearts of his family and friends.

The 22-year-old Wyoming High School graduate and University of Virginia student was sentenced in March to 15 years of hard labor after being accused of stealing a sign at a hotel in Pyongyang, the capital. He was arrested Jan. 2 after visiting the country with a tour group.

Because the U.S. and North Korea have no diplomatic relations, technically being in a state of war since an armistice halted the Korean War in 1953, the Swedish government is a go-between. Its embassy in Washington deferred all questions to the State Department.

A statement from the State Department to WCPO reiterated its objection to the detention and sentence as "unduly harsh for the actions Mr. Warmbier allegedly took.

"Despite official claims that U.S. citizens arrested in the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) are not used for political purposes, it is increasingly clear from its very public treatment of these cases that the DPRK does just that," the statement read in part. "Mr. Warmbier has gone through the criminal process and been detained for almost a full year. We urge the DPRK to pardon him and grant him special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds."

In its first comment since Warmbier's incarceration in March, the administration of Ohio Gov. John Kasich told WCPO that the governor is also engaged.

"The governor continues to be very concerned about Mr. Warmbier and he discussed this ongoing situation this fall during a visit to the White House," said press secretary Emmalee Kalmbach. "He has also been in communication with Otto's family and has encouraged the federal government to keep them informed."

Warmbier's father, Fred, owns a company with locations in Hamilton and Evendale. A receptionist at one site said that no comment would be made.

The general silence and lack of movement is not surprising, said Walter Clemens, professor emeritus of political science at Boston University and author of "North Korea and The World," which came out this year. Clemens is a Cincinnati native, having graduated from Purcell High School, the forerunner to Purcell Marian, in 1951 -- in the midst of the Korean War. Purcell Marian is about a 20-minute drive south from Wyoming High.

"(President) Obama relapsed into strategic patience, (in other words) doing nothing," Clemens said. "(North Korean leader) Kim Jong-un may wait for the next U.S. president. Otto is a low-cost hostage."

Clemens began studying the former Soviet Union as an undergrad, and much of his scholarly work has been about the U.S.S.R. He visited the Soviet Union at roughly the same age that Warmbier toured North Korea.

Clemens said that Warmbier's detention is about leverage, as the State Department charges.

"North Korea arrests Americans to get attention and possibly a concession of some kind," he said. "A foreign policy priority is to get diplomatic relations with the U.S. and possibly a face-to-face meeting with a top U.S. official."

The pending presidency of Donald Trump certainly changes the dynamic, Clemens said. In May, Trump briefly touched on the subject of North Korea, saying he'd be open to talking with its leader. An editorial from a state-run media outlet later praised Trump and urged his election over Hillary Clinton.

"It would be hard for most U.S. presidents to meet with a brutal dictator," he said. "But Trump does not care much for political correctness and could conceivably talk directly with Kim Jong-un.

"If Trump can deal in a friendly way with (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, he might try to do the same with Kim Jong-un. On the other hand, he might not be inhibited about using military force. Warmbier's fate will depend on the big picture."

A request for comment from the Trump transition team was not answered.

As for Warmbier's treatment, Clemens can only speculate but thinks the worst-case scenario is unlikely. North Korea is known to treat political prisoners, or those it believes openly challenge the regime, particularly brutally. Human Rights Watch estimates that as many as 120,000 are imprisoned in "reform through labor" camps.

In the past, most foreigners jailed for seemingly minor offenses, like Warmbier, and sentenced to long terms at hard labor neither labor hard nor stay long. Prominent U.S. officials, including President Bill Clinton, have secured the release of Americans months into their detention.

"I presume he receives decent food, but he might be in a cold room," Clemens said. "There is little heat in most North Korea dwellings. Human rights conditions have not improved under Kim Jong-un, but Warmbier is probably treated much better than most North Korea prisoners."