U.S. student dies shortly after medical evacuation from North Korean custody

North Korea (MNN) — Otto Warmbier, the American student who was detained in North Korea for 17 months and medically evacuated last week in a coma, passed away on Monday.

Otto Warmbier on trial in North Korea.

North Korea arrested Warmbier in January 2016 as he was leaving the country with a tourist group. They accused him of attempting to steal a propaganda poster and sentenced the 22-year-old to 15 years of hard labor.

North Korean authorities report that shortly following Warmbier’s sentencing, he slipped into a coma after he was given a sleeping pill for botulism, a kind of food poisoning. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center found no evidence of botulism, but they say he did have extensive brain damage possibly caused by oxygen deprivation.

What message does this send from North Korea to the rest of the world? Todd Nettleton with Voice of the Martyrs USA reflects, “I think it sends the message of a complete disrespect for the United States of America, a complete disrespect for even human decency and the rule of law, and it could bring about a chill in relations between our two countries. And again, saying it could bring about a chill, there already is very little communication, very little relationship there. It’s hard to know how the U.S. will respond.”

In a statement from Warmbier’s family, they share, “Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”

(Photo courtesy of Christian Aid Mission)

Republican Sen. John McCain stated Warmbier’s death constituted “murder” at the hands of North Korea, and President Trump and other Washington lawmakers condemned the North Korean regime for its brutality.

Nettleton says, “I tend to agree with Senator John McCain who issued a statement saying the United States of America cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers. It will be interesting to see how the Trump Administration and the State Department responds to this situation.”

If this is what happens to U.S. citizens in North Korean custody, Nettleton asks, what happens to North Korean citizens and Christians who simply disappear?

“It really shows the complete lack of respect for human life that the North Korean government has, and the fact that this would happen to an American, we can probably not even imagine the hardship and the suffering of North Koreans who are in those political prisoner camps [and] have been declared enemies of the North Korean government, enemies of the North Korean people. Their treatment is every bit as bad as Otto Warmbier’s and probably worse.”

(Map of North Korea courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

North Korea, a totalitarian communist nation, goes to great lengths to control anything they view as a threat to Communism or the state.

This also means Christians in North Korea are heavily targeted. “Some estimate [there are] 100,000 believers, some estimate more than that. Many of those are in those camps and they are suffering. But they have hope. We have the hope of eternity with Christ.”

Nettleton says Warmbier’s case reminds him of another detainee situation in North Korea. John Short, a 75-year-old Australian Christian, was arrested in North Korea in 2013 after leaving Gospel tracts near a Buddhist temple.

Nettleton says, “I had the chance to interview [Short] and I’ve been reminded of his experiences this week, and that interview is available on our VOM Radio podcast. So those who are wanting to know more about North Korea, I would just encourage them to look into that. Hearing John’s story, I think, has a lot of resonance this week as we pray for Otto’s family and as we hear about his death.”

Click here for part one of Short’s interview with Nettleton on VOM Radio, here for part two of Short’s interview, and here for the companion interview with Short’s wife, Karen Short.

As for praying for the Warmbier family, here is what Nettleton suggests: “I think as we talk about a response, my heart breaks for Otto’s family. I have a son who’s 23 and so this kind of hits very close to home to me, the fact that these people sent their son on a study abroad opportunity and he never came home whole, and so we want to pray for them that they will find comfort. I don’t know their spiritual situation, but certainly, I hope that they have the comfort of knowing Christ and of being followers of God.”

Please pray for the country of North Korea as well. “We pray for the people who are there, we pray for a government that is just and that honors human rights and honors the rule of law, not only for our Christian brothers and sisters there but for all North Koreans. All North Koreans deserve better opportunities and a better life than what they have under the Kim regime. So we pray that the Lord will bring that about somehow.”