We may not know exactly why or how University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier fell into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea. But everything else that happened to Warmbier we know was outrageous and horrific: arrested on a group tour for, supposedly, taking a propaganda poster off a hotel wall; paraded through a farce of a trial where he sobbed for forgiveness and mercy; sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Then, according to the North Koreans, he fell into a coma and was kept imprisoned in that state for more than a year before they finally released him — no doubt because they didn’t want him to die on their watch or because a dead American is suddenly no longer a valuable pawn in their twisted game of global diplomacy. He died six days after the North Koreans shipped his nearly lifeless body home.
Of course, we already knew that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s depraved leader, starves his own people, tortures them when they misbehave and is desperately pursuing nuclear capability. He is even believed to have had his own uncle killed. In a 2014 report, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in North Korea documented state-ordered murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, and rape and concluded that the magnitude of this brutality made it a state that “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.” Human Rights Watch says people accused of serious political offenses are usually sent to prison camps where they get little food and almost no medical care and lack proper housing and clothing. U.S. and South Korean officials estimate that 80,000 to 120,000 prisoners are being held in these camps. The North Korean government says they don’t exist.
So although Warmbier’s fate is tragic, it is not unusual — for North Koreans. But it’s a reminder that North Korea’s leaders have placed their country not just in an economic and geographic isolation but in a kind of isolation from global humanity. Three Americans remain imprisoned in North Korea. If Kim wants any connection to the rest of the world — beyond China — he should strongly consider releasing them immediately. But, even then, tens of thousands will remain in captivity.