Otto Warmbier, A One-Man Holocaust
Published: 2018-04-05

The atrocities charged by one government against another are often actually a mirror, in which, if the accuser would but once cast an honest glance, he would see his own murderous face. But honesty is everywhere and always a precious rarity, and never more-so than when perceiving and casting blame for the undeniably miserable fates of captives.

Such was the case in the concentration camps of prostrate Germany as Allied armies swept into the Reich from both east and west. The ones coming from the west had movie cameras, and ultimately, Alfred Hitchcock himself, while the ones from the east relied more on secrecy and sheer indifference to the crudity of their contributions to the tsunamis of retribution then engulfing the defeated Huns. While bulldozers driven by British soldiers shoved the bodies of countless typhus victims who had in fact died after the cessation of hostilities into mass graves before whirring cameras, the victorious Allies put it about that these were the victims of murder committed by Germans. In fact, as we now know, the invading Allies with their strategic bombing of all transportation links as well as other installations for the processing and distribution of food and medicines bear at least as great a portion of the blame for the cinematically immortalized death toll as could possibly be assigned to the Germans, who had taken at least “fair” if not “good” care of the inmates for years before the horrific climax of the war did them in.

This profoundly unjust sequence of events has played out again, with the same accuser (the United States) but a different villain (North Korea). Fortunately, the number of victims figuring into the story recently in the news is but one: a very unfortunate, if rash, young American college student named Otto Warmbier. Like many of the inmates of the German camps, Warmbier had been accused by the authorities in North Korea of committing an act that might not have been a serious crime if committed elsewhere. He had attempted to steal a banner that had been displayed in the hotel he had stayed at in Pyongyang in 2016, possibly a stunt he had been dared to perform before his trip, or even (according to the North Korean authorities) an act of espionage performed at the behest of the CIA. He received a long prison sentence in a trial conducted after his arrest at the airport from which he would have left North Korea together with others in his tour group (who all did in fact leave North Korea as planned).

The North Koreans released Warmbier to return to the US in 2017. He arrived in a semi-comatose state whose causes could be any of a huge number of factors ranging from torture techniques used by the US (waterboarding) to a wide range of natural occurrences such as pneumonia. His body displayed evidence of medical interventions (tracheostomy) to overcome certain potential causes of the condition in which he arrived, which was the irreversible destruction of major portions of his brain from the deprivation of the oxygen supply to them. He died in a US hospital about a week after his return. While the medical examiner of the Ohio county in which he was hospitalized conducted an extensive examination of him, his parents denied permission to conduct an actual post-mortem, a decision easily explained by the assumption that the parents conspired with medical professionals to euthanize their son (who likely had no hope of recovery) and as part of the agreement promised to disallow a post-mortem that would have revealed the proximate cause of death.

Meanwhile, the intrepid student’s father Fred Warmbier, no doubt overcome by grief and a need to blame, expostulated, “There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret, and denied him top-notch medical care for so long.”

Well, there are excuses, and they are not unlike the excuses the German operators of concentration camps had (but were never allowed to describe) for the grisly fates that ultimately befell so many of the inmates of their camps. Bergen-Belsen, the camp at which much of the most-famous footage was shot, was primarily an “exchange camp,” a camp in which persons were kept whom the Germans wished to exchange with the advancing Allies for various sorts of equipment and even foodstuffs and medicine. For the most part, the Allies demurred[1], thus deepening their guilt for the conditions which they so indignantly broadcast to a horrified world after the guns had fallen silent.

Since before Warmbier’s initial detention, North Korea has been the target of US sanctions blocking or delaying that country’s importation of all manner of supplies and equipment of the sort that could have improved Otto Warmbier’s lot, along with the lots of millions of ordinary North Korean citizens, including medicine, food, heating fuel, and medical equipment. Warmbier apparently received medical attention, rather like many inmates of Germany’s wartime camps, at least comparable to, if not superior to, the level of care allotted to the modal (free) citizen of the embattled country.

Supposing North Korea, in recognition of its thus-hobbled inability to meet Père Warmbier’s demands for the medical treatment of his son, had sought “top-notch medical care” for their prisoner. Perhaps they would have invited “top-notch” doctors from the US, or Europe, to visit and attend to the convict, something they can’t do for their own citizens, partly because of the US blockade. Should they have paid for this? Might Fred Warmbier have paid (if he could)? Perhaps they might have invited the importation of sophisticated medical equipment that North Korea can’t afford, or that is blocked by the US sanctions. Might they even have been permitted to keep this equipment after it had been used for the benefit of this one special charge of theirs? Perhaps at Père Warmbier’s expense?

It seems to have been unknown to the North Koreans but, like many of the victims in German camps of World War II, Otto Warmbier’s family is Jewish. The truly pitiable parents of Otto Warmbier have other children, younger than Brother Otto. Perhaps they should enjoin their children from attempting political stunts in countries currently under sanctions by the United States. If detained for their crimes, they might receive better medical care.


[1] It is common for incipient victors to reject such offers from the soon-to-be-defeated. In the US Civil War, Secretary of War William Seward repeatedly rejected offers from the Confederate foe to exchange prisoners of war. He cited the not-incredible notion that the Confederates would throw their returned soldiers into the desperate resistance to the final Union victory. As a consequence, many thousands of prisoners of war, Confederate and Union alike, spent months and even years in camps such as the notorious one at Andersonville Station, Georgia, and as many died, perhaps, as might have died had Seward’s fears all been fully realized.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): Jett Rucker
Title: Otto Warmbier, A One-Man Holocaust
Published: 2018-04-05
First posted on CODOH: April 5, 2018, 8:33 p.m.
Last revision:
Appears In: