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GQ: Warmbier beatings in North Korea probably never happened, became a rallying cry anyway

Posted: 10:31 PM, Jul 23, 2018
Updated: 2018-07-24 04:47:03Z

CINCINNATI -- The shocking condition in which Otto Warmbier returned to the United States could only be explained by torture, his parents said.

Their description of the son brought home to them after over a year in North Korean captivity recalled victims of human experimentation in horror movies: Bottom teeth protruding at odd angles, body jerking in uncontrollable spasms, awareness and language totally obliterated from his mind.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier believe strongly enough that their son had been brutally tortured after his arrest in North Korea to sue the repressive nation . President Donald Trump, who after Warmbier's June 16 death in a Cincinnati hospital escalated his online attacks against leader Kim Jong Un, echoed their description: The 22-year-old had been "tortured beyond belief," he wrote in a tweet .

Was he?

Warmbier's unjust imprisonment and death are incontrovertible fact.

A new GQ article  titled "The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage," argues his physical torture is not.

RELATED:  Otto Warmbier's death, North Korean imprisonment baffles experts  

Although the New York Times reported before Warmbier's return that senior American intelligence officials believed he had been beaten, and his parents described him as having clearly been physically abused, Hamilton County Coroner Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco said her external examination of his body showed " no evidence of trauma " like the kind they described.

His parents did not permit a full autopsy.

Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of the Neurocritical Care Program at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, said scans of Warmbier's skeleton showed no fractures anywhere.

"(His) skin was in good condition, and he was well-nourished when he arrived at our facility," Kanter said.

Well-nourished. Bones whole. Teeth in healthy condition with no evidence of the rearrangement Fred Warmbier claimed.

Otto Warmbier was perfectly healthy except for his brain, which was irreparably damaged by what American doctors believe was oxygen deprivation and North Korea claimed was the ill-fated combination of botulism and a sleeping pill.

RELATED:  This is the last recording of Otto Warmbier before his arrest in North Korea

The North Korean explanation makes little sense and is almost certainly untrue, according to doctors. Torture squares better with what the United States knows about North Korea generally, but the GQ piece argues American prisoners in the hermit kingdom are rarely -- if ever -- physically abused. They are frequently, however, subject to intense interrogation and verbal threats meant to produce a confession to crimes against the state like the one a white-faced Warmbier was recorded giving in February 2016 .

Pyongyang saves its worst punishments -- starvation, back-breaking forced labor, forced abortions, torture and public execution -- for its own, who don't have ambassadors or tempestuous presidents asking about their welfare. It's also unlikely that a beating brutal enough to induce a coma wouldn't leave behind fractured bones.

Experts consulted by the author, Doug Bock Clark, said later intelligence received by the United States did not support the conclusion that Warmbier had been tortured, either. By then, the earlier report was already out in the world and being repeated by the president.

So what happened?

On a global scale, everyone knows. After months of escalating threats and strong-manning between Trump and Kim, the pair met for a summit meant to serve as prelude to a friendlier relationship and a less radioactive North Korea. Trump thanked Warmbier in a news conference afterward.

"Without Otto Warmbier, this summit wouldn't have happened," he said. "Otto is someone who did not die in vain."

On a smaller scale -- a scale limited to one body, containing one person who arrived home too broken to describe his journey -- no one does. Clark considered the possibility he may have mimicked other American prisoners and attempted suicide, a suggestion which he said prompted Warmbier's parents to withdraw a statement they had provided for the story.

Of course, he doesn't know, either. He admits as much.

"We all have to choose what we want to believe about Otto's tragedy," he writes near the end of the piece, adding: "It is important to consider what story we believe and why."