Around 100 students, alumni, professors and community members congregated in Nau Hall Thursday night for an event honoring the life of Otto Warmbier, a then third-year Commerce student, Echols Scholar and member of Theta Chi fraternity who was detained in North Korea in 2016 and passed away 17 months later once returned to the U.S.
The event — held as the fifth anniversary of Otto’s death nears — was hosted by Think Again, a faculty-led program within the College of Arts and Sciences that promotes free speech and open discussion. Speakers at the event included one of Otto’s best friends at the University and Theta Chi pledge brother, a prominent North Korean defector currently living in the U.S. and a Law professor specializing in American Constitutional law and executive power.
Otto visited North Korea on a winter study abroad trip to China in 2016, and was detained while at the airport preparing to return home for allegedly defiling a poster resembling the likeness of a North Korean leader. Otto was then handed a sentence of 15 years of hard labor. When the North Korean government released Otto 17 months later to his family back in the United States, Otto returned in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and died alongside his loved ones less than a week later.
Billy Burgess, close friend of Otto and Class of 2017 alumnus, opened the event with a discussion of all the things he loved about Otto. Burgess characterized Otto as intelligent, loving, able to talk to anyone and a little quirky, noting that he owned a collection of vintage Gucci sweaters and loved ‘90s hip-hop music.
Burgess told multiple stories about Otto, ranging from the time he gave a McIntire-level presentation to his fraternity brothers as he bid for the role of Theta Chi treasurer to spending a Friday night buying a cactus on the Corner and attending an a capella concert with a friend, hoping to woo the a capella singer he was dating at the time.
“Those stories remind me of who he was, who he was as a person and why he was important,” Burgess said.
In the eyes of Burgess, Otto’s care for others and curiosity about those he didn’t know is what drove him both to be a stand-out friend and to embark on the trip.
“He cared about people deeply, even people he didn’t know…he was always curious,” Burgess said. “It was a curiosity, it was an empathy. He wanted to understand what it was all about and what those people were going through and to one day hopefully find a way to help out.”
Yeonmi Park, prominent North Korean defector and human rights advocate, spoke to her personal experience growing up in a regime “unimaginable to us” living in America. Now living in America, Park encouraged anyone who has a protected freedom of speech to use their voices to call attention to the human rights violations prevalent in North Korea.
Life in North Korea is indescribable, Park said — Park noted that North Koreans have no sense of words such as “stress,” “depression” or even “love.”
“This is a life without freedom,” Park said. “We’re supposed to talk about democracy today, and I think North Korea is a perfect example of what happens when we don’t have freedom in our country.”
Law Prof. Sai Prakash echoed Park, calling everyone within the bounds of the country “pawns on the chess board.” Prakash, like other media outlets at the time, also brought up the political nature of Otto’s arrest.
“It seemed clear to me, at least, that Otto was not arrested for stealing a poster,” Prakash said. “He was arrested to send a message to the United States.”
Experts — Prakash among them — have also previously raised doubts about the confession Otto made during a North Korean press conference in 2016 before his sentencing, and whether or not it was forced. Otto clearly read from a prepared statement during the conference, Burgess remembered thinking the confession seemed forced when he watched it happen.
“The entire televised event didn’t really feel like Otto,” Burgess said. “I had seen him cry before, I had seen him upset and emotional and it didn’t really feel genuine.”
In an impromptu remark later in the event, Otto’s father Fred Warmbier thanked Prakash for bringing up the possibility of Otto’s confession being manufactured by the North Korean regime.
“Everything North Korea accepted was, was said about Otto, was accepted as true and it just tore us up,” Warmbier said. “And thank you professor for bringing that up. They made Otto say my parents needed money to pay for my siblings' education. We took his confession and every item in there was a completely made up farce.
Prakash spoke at length about the structures of rights in the United States and in North Korea. While North Korea is a “dictatorship with a cult of personality” in Prakash’s words, the American government is deliberately organized to both empower the national government and to limit it. Prakash offered examples, such as America’s right to a jury trial and federalist system of shared government where states can check the national government.
“Our system is not perfect,” Prakash said. “The innocent can get punished, the guilty can walk away scot-free … but ours is not a system of one king and millions of pawns. We have a system of rights, a system of checks and balances, a system of separation of power.”
After Burgess brought up the “valiant efforts” taken by the Warmbier family to hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s death, Fred Warmbier gave an unplanned brief on the work the family has done to fight against the North Korean regime. The Warmbiers worked to successfully close an illegal hostel on the grounds of the North Korean embassy in Berlin, get North Korea listed on the America’s state sponsors of terrorism list and sue North Korea for the ‘illegal detention, torture and killing’ of Otto — a suit in which they won and were awarded $501 million.
The Warmbier’s have also worked extensively with lawmakers across the aisle at all levels of government, securing the passage of the Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act — which increases funding to provide internet freedom to North Korean citizens — in 2021 and the Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea Act — which allows for sanctions against banking institutions backing the North Korean regime — in 2017.
While the Warmbier’s encouraged attendees to support their efforts, they reiterated their hope that what is taken away from the event is an inclination to spread positivity just like Otto did throughout his life.
“You go through these topics and people are shell shocked,” Warmbier said. “And it's like wow, and that's not what we want. Otto was about positivity. So Cindy and I had a decision to make when Otto passed…and if we don't live a life of positivity, then what message does that send to our children and the rest of the world that [North Korea is] allowed to do this?”
Burgess similarly said that the only way he knows to honor his friend with the “loudest and most infectious laugh” is to seek opportunities to care for others and not shy away from life.
“I think Otto would want you to learn something new, to talk to somebody that you might not want to talk to initially, to reach out to a stranger, to be a good friend,” Burgess said. “So I don't have all the answers, but knowing him as well as I did I think that's what he would want.”