How long would North Korea have held Otto Warmbier if he remained healthy?

Posted at 11:28 PM, Jun 23, 2017

CINCINNATI -- Otto Warmbier died this week, days after he was released from a 17-month detention in North Korea.

Warmbier was convicted to 15 years of hard labor last year for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner from a Pyongyang hotel. North Korean officials said he contracted botulism and never woke up after taking a sleeping pill not long after.

What would have happened to Warmbier had he not fallen into a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" while being held by North Korea? How long would they have held him?

It's difficult to say for sure whether Warmbier would have served the full 15 years, Evans Revere told ABC News' 20/20. Revere works as a private consultant for American families with loved ones detained in North Korea.

Revere said he told the Warmbiers that the North Koreans would release Otto when they were “done with him, when he is no longer of value to them, when they don’t see any utility to his continued incarceration.”

While imprisoned in North Korea, Warmbier could have faced harsh conditions.

Scott Edwards of Amnesty International told 20/20 the large North Korean prison camps host industries of slave labor.

"These camps are places of unimaginable suffering," he said.

But Americans detained by North Korea provide something more valuable for the isolated country, according to Sue Mi Terry, a senior research scholar at Columbia University and former CIA senior analyst on North Korea. She told 20/20 that North Korea sees American hostages as a "bargaining chip."

In Warmbier's case, the North Koreans took him just days ahead of a nuclear test.

“You can get a high-level visit from Washington, and that is a good propaganda coup domestically to say, ‘Look they came, they bowed before me, and I am a benevolent ruler getting and freeing these people,’" Terry told 20/20. “So you can always use American hostages as leverage.”

Check out 20/20's website for more of their investigation into Korth Korea and Warmbier's detention there.