WASHINGTON -- Cincinnatians Fred and Cindy Warmbier wept openly Tuesday night when President Donald Trump's State of the Union address pivoted from broad denunciations of "the cruel dictatorship in North Korea" to the very personal trauma that reclusive nation delivered into their lives.
Standing in front of a physical audience of hundreds and an online audience of millions more, the president retold a story that dominated Tri-State news coverage throughout summer 2017:
"Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia. On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea. At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June -- horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return.
Warmbier, who was 22 years old on the day of his death, was arrested in January 2016 on charges of attempting to steal a North Korean propaganda poster. Members of his tour group said they weren't aware anything was wrong until North Korean police refused to let Warmbier board their departing flight.
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His March 6, 2016 trial lasted just an hour and was preceded by a tearful -- as well as likely coerced -- recorded confession that he had attempted to harm the North Korean state by stealing the poster. At the end of it, guards dragged him out of the room by his arms.
Although politicians such as Gov. John Kasich immediately chastised the Kim regime for Warmbier's treatment and attempted to negotiate his release, he would not resurface until June 12, 2017, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced North Korea had agreed to release him.
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Doctors and family members still cannot agree on what happened to Warmbier during his time in prison. They might never know. What became plainly apparent when Warmbier arrived back in Cincinnati was that he had sustained a "severe neurological injury" -- one North Korean officials attempted to explain with a since-debunked claim of botulism -- and lost much of his mental and physical function as a result.
He died at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center seven days later.
Tensions with North Korea escalated in the ensuing months as two world leaders who pride themselves on their tough talk clashed in an international war of words. At the Warmbier family's behest, Trump declared North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism in November; he would later ring in 2018 by comparing the United States' nuclear arsenal to that of North Korea.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
His State of the Union remarks Tuesday emphasized a continued commitment to opposing the "ominous" Kim regime and recognizing those who had been affected by its abuses, including the Warmbier family and defector Ji Seong-ho.
"You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all," Trump told the Warmbiers. "Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto's memory with American resolve."