Fred and Cindy Warmbier, parents of Otto Warmbier who was tortured in North Korea, discuss with Hillel Neuer at the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
Hillel Neuer: I’m joined on the stage by Fred and Cindy Warmbier, and they’re here because of their son, Otto. I want to say a few words about Otto, and we’ll ask some questions and have a discussion with Fred and Cindy.
Otto Warmbier was a University of Virginia student when he was detained in Pyongyang airport on the final day of a five-day tour of North Korea in January 2016. He was accused of sneaking onto a restricted floor of his hotel and attempting to steal a political poster. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor. In total, Otto Warmbier spent 17 months in North Korea before being released. He was taken by a medical aircraft to the United States. After his arrival, doctors said his condition was severe and that he had suffered extensive loss of tissue in all regions of his brain. Four days after that, he was gone. He had been tortured, injured, murdered by the regime.
And Fred and Cindy are here. They’re still grieving. I want to ask them: Fred and Cindy, you haven’t done anything really like this. Why did you decide to come to the Geneva Summit?
Fred: Thank you for having us here. You had just sent an invitation, and we heard good things about you and your organization. So, it was as simple as that.
It’s hard to hear that story about Otto, and Cindy and I try to stay forward-looking with this, but it’s important to know: How did Otto end up in North Korea, and how did we end up here?
We raised Otto to be curious and have a good, hard work ethic, and also to have a sense of humor, and he had all those, and he was a great son. And you wouldn’t tell Otto “no,” because he never did anything to deserve that. So, this opportunity for the Geneva Summit is kind of the same thing — we taught him to be curious, we taught him to work hard — we’re curious, and we’ve seen so many amazing things here, that it’s crazy to think of some of the political situations that we’ve just listened to. Our problems seem small by comparison.
Cindy: No, they don’t. (Laughs.) When I hear about these terrible regimes, I… Otto never got to hear our voice. He never got to talk to an American. He never got a trial where he was represented. The tour group left him there. He was basically abandoned — a 21-year-old college kid — and the fear he had to feel haunts me. And our ability to do nothing as an American citizen shocked me. And Otto has put a face on the North Korean crisis that supposedly will shed light on the situation there. But out of all the regimes, I don’t think there’s a worse one around.
HN: Cindy, we talked about the terrible things; I’d like to hear the good things. The world sees the headlines, the world doesn’t necessarily know who Otto was. I saw a video on the internet which was very powerful, of him, speaking — salutatorian? Is that the term? Does that mean, like, a valedictorian address for the graduating class? Number two? — ok! I saw him a bit, and he’s a handsome, lively, funny, witty young man. Tell us about Otto, tell us about your son.
Cindy: Otto had a — as a lot of these people who get detained — he had a high intelligence, and he had a charisma, and he was naturally curious. Because he had a somewhat privileged life. He had been loved, he had excelled in everything he’d done, so there’s something intriguing about seeing a culture that was so different when you’ve lived free your whole life, and loved. So, I think he was curious about people that didn’t have the rights he had, and we always knew Otto would be, would someday be famous. He was born smart.
Fred: So to talk about our situation in North Korea, we have to go to South Korea, because we can’t go to North Korea. So, in the last month, we were at the State of the Union and honored by the president, which was great — didn’t expect any of this. And then we had planned to go to the Olympics, and we were also a guest of the vice president. This was really tough for us, and we took our daughter Greta there, so I’m going to read to you a little bit of the summary of what it felt like when we went to South Korea, and our thoughts when we did this:
(Reading:) When we read that North Korea would be sending athletes and dancers to the Olympics in South Korea, we felt compelled to be there to represent Otto. We went with misgivings and anxiety over being in a country that welcomed Otto’s murderers. After spending time in South Korea, even though there was a huge language barrier, we felt comfortable, safe, and welcomed. (End reading.)
That was really good for us to experience that. This is the closest we’re going to be to where our son Otto was the son we’d left at the airport in Cincinnati on his way to visit North Korea.
HN: You mentioned that you were in South Korea, and you were there at the Olympics. Tell me a little bit about the country. What kind of country did you find in South Korea? What was your impression?
Cindy: Well, like Fred has mentioned, you know, I go to South Korea, and I have a lot of mixed feelings. You know, in my heart, I didn’t want to like the country. We wanted to go to the DMZ (demilitarized zone on the border of North and South Korea), we wanted to confront North Korea. And, what happened was, the South Korean country was warm, welcoming, clean, friendly, and we ended up having a great time, being a part of this culture that I wanted not to like. And so, we ended up not feeling the need to go to the DMZ, or to even run into the non-participating-participating North Koreans at the Olympics. It was healing for us.
Fred: I think the highlight, or one of the highlights of the trip for me, is that I was able to meet and shake hands with President Moon [of South Korea]. Three days after Otto passed away, we received a condolence letter from President Moon, and it was very kind, and it meant a lot to our family.
HN: And you were at the Olympics, you mentioned the fact that the dictator’s sister was there, and that there was media coverage that did not reflect what the country was. Tell me generally about the Olympics; I understand you met some people, you met a defector that you had also met at the State of the Union — an amputee.
Fred: Yeah, we did, we met more defectors. Again, I think the total experience in South Korea was being in this amazing country, this growing, developing country, with people that are nurtured, they have food and they have medicine. So, that was one of our experiences.
We met with defectors, and again, that’s tough when you meet a woman who’s been in prison for 28 years, and you ask her what can we do to help — and this is how moms feel — she said, “We want you to kill Kim.” And that was just a real, powerful, it was honest, and I could look, and she had a hardened look on her face, and it was sad, but that was the way she felt. So we had those experiences, as well, at the Olympics.
But the spirit of the Olympics was an amazing feeling to be part of that. That’s what Cindy said — we were able to let go, enjoy South Korea, the people of South Korea, the system of South Korea, the progress that they have. And that was great for us to experience that. And the spirit of the Olympics is kind of like the spirit that we feel here at the Geneva Summit, and that’s a “go-for-it, go big, feels right, let’s do it.” And that’s the spirit of Otto. The spirit of Otto was — and we always encouraged him to go for it. I’m sorry he went to North Korea. I’m not sorry I’m here. That was the spirit that we felt, and I think the spirit that is felt here.
HN: Thank you. Cindy, I saw that Otto’s younger brother said that it was hard being Otto’s younger brother. Tell me what he meant by that.
Cindy: You know, when you lose a kid, it’s always hard, but when you lose a kid like Otto…
Fred: I think it was just typical sibling rivalry.
HN: He had said that he was so perfect in so many ways.
Fred: But he wasn’t, he was just a kid. And I think what makes this so compelling to the world, is that the Kim family, they chose to do this. They used Otto as a pawn and a hostage, and they did this in front of the world. It was on TV to show everyone. They show them pushing him, and this is their message: If they do this to Otto, imagine what they do to their citizens. Imagine what they intend to do to the rest of the world. They held our family hostage for a year and a half, and this is exactly what they’re doing to the international community right now. And it was tragic being in South Korea, and talking to the South Koreans, and in the back of their mind, the fear that they would talk about North Korea — what if they do this? What if they do that?
It’s tragic. They [North Korea] don’t deserve this respect. They don’t deserve to be in the same room as Otto.
HN: Fred, we had a private meeting with diplomats, and we won’t say what they said, but you asked a question which I think is relevant to Geneva and to the United Nations. In the United Nations, every country is the same, and every country gets invited to all meetings, and when they have rotations, sadly it happened a few years ago — 5 or 6 years ago — North Korea sits on the Disarmament Committee, and they go by rotation, and one month, North Korea was the Chair. And no one thought that was a problem, because it’s a rotation, and even if they’re a bad country, well, it’s a rotation. What are your thoughts about North Korea being treated like any other country?
Fred: So, again, we’re not political, it’s personal. And so, North Korea told us, told Cindy and I, that Otto is a prisoner of war and a war criminal. And I asked the folks at the conference yesterday, why aren’t they held to account for saying these things? We had one letter, written by the Swedish ambassador, in 18 months. That was it as far as communication. And yet, they’re not held accountable. So that was stunning to us, to say what do you mean by “war criminal,” what do you mean by “prisoner of war?” So, therefore, if he’s a “prisoner of war,” why can’t we write him letters? They’re not accountable for these—
HN: Under the Geneva Convention, just up the street, the Red Cross implements that. It’s their obligation.
Fred: Yeah. But they’re not held accountable to this.
HN: Well, I want to ask you, you come here, you’re speaking out, what is your spirit as you go forward, and come here at the summit? Maybe some final words on how you want to move forward?
Cindy: Well, it’s been a pleasure being here. You know, living in my little vacuum, I mean you read things, but you’re not aware of all the individual pains out there, and the countries that are invoking these on citizens. And, you know, as many problems as the US has, I am sure glad to be a US citizen. And I think I’m leaving with that.
Fred: And I would say, we don’t have a plan. We buried our son 8 months ago. It was tragic. We were led to believe he was in perfect health up until two weeks before he came home. We’re still waking up, and we’re still recovering. But I will say, I believe the world is mostly a good place. It’s not always. We started this experience as happy and positive people, and we’re proud of our son, we’re also proud of our other two children, and we intend to move forward in the world as positive people, and if we can make a change with Otto’s death, that would be great.
Let’s just think about the comparison: South Korea is an advancing, contributing country in the world. They donate money to charitable causes. They’re an amazing country. The example of South Korea is what the North Korean people are capable of. It’d be nice to experience that in our lifetime.
HN: Fred, I think that’s a good way to leave it. All of us pay tribute to the memory of Otto, and we salute you for being here and speaking out. I think that’s your way of paying tribute to his memory and to see if there’s a way you can make some kind of a difference in the world in his memory. That’s what we’re trying to do here, that’s why everyone is here today. So I know it was very difficult for you to come here, it wasn’t an easy decision. I thank you for making the trip, and I’m glad to have met you.
Fred: Thank you.