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He had two children and struggled to imagine one in such a state. Yun, too, couldn't help but think of his own son, around Otto's age, and about how the Warmbiers would feel when they saw their boy. Two North Korean doctors explained that Otto had arrived at the hospital this way more than a year before and showed as proof thick handwritten charts and several brain scans that revealed Otto had suffered extensive brain damage.

Flueckiger spent about an hour examining Otto, but the truth had been evident at first sight: The Otto of old was already gone. Though he had obviously improved since coming into the hospital he had a tracheotomy scar where machines had once breathed for him , he was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness, meaning he still possessed basic reflexes but no longer showed signs of awareness.

The North Koreans asked Flueckiger to sign a report testifying that Otto had been well cared for in the hospital. But the North Koreans were still not ready to release Otto. Negotiations continued into the night. Then, the next morning, Flueckiger and Yun were driven to a hotel in downtown Pyongyang, where the three other American prisoners were marched into a conference room one by one.

After only 15 minutes, though, each prisoner was escorted away. Once they got back to the guesthouse, Yun found himself once more arguing with North Korean officials for Otto's freedom. I told the North Koreans we would leave with or without Otto. I felt there was no point in dragging on.

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I was 90 percent sure they would release him, and that this call would bring an action forcing them to do so. Shortly before the plane was to land, a North Korean official announced to Yun that they had decided to release Otto. The Americans returned to the hospital, and a North Korean judge in a black suit commuted Otto's sentence. Then the U. When the plane cleared North Korean airspace, the celebration was muted. The team knew they would soon have to face the heartbreak of turning Otto over to his parents.

In the meantime, Flueckiger cradled Otto, changed his diaper, and whispered to him that he was free, like a father soothing his baby. Two days after the return, Fred Warmbier took the stage at Otto's high school. He was draped in the linen blazer that his son had worn during his forced confession. From the start, Fred had striven relentlessly for Otto's freedom with the same streetwise entrepreneurism he had used to eventually build a major metal-finishing business after going to work straight out of high school. He traveled to Washington more than a dozen times in to meet with Secretary of State John Kerry and other high-level politicians.

When Otto was returned in a vegetative state, Fred refocused his zeal on getting justice for him. To Fred, the evidence of torture seemed clear. The once vital young man was severely brain-damaged. His formerly straight teeth were misaligned, and a large scar marred his foot. Doctors detected no signs of botulism, North Korea's explanation. Within 48 hours of his return, Otto had a fever that had risen to degrees. After doctors confirmed to Fred and Cindy that their son would never be cognizant again, they directed that his feeding tube be removed.

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They lived at his bedside until, six days after returning home, Otto died. Hundreds of people lined the streets to witness Otto's hearse, and many made the W hand gesture representing his high school. Fred graphically described damage to Otto's teeth and foot as the result of torture and demanded that the administration punish the dictatorship. In early November, Congress backed banking restrictions against North Korea that were named for Otto.

Around the same time as Otto's death, U. Behind the scenes in Washington, dovish diplomats, like Joseph Yun, were replaced by hawks, like John Bolton, one of the architects of the Iraq war. The likelihood of conflict grew so real that an American diplomat warned a Seoul-dwelling friend in confidence to move his assets out of South Korea.

On TV and social media, and in official speeches, Republican officials cited Otto's death as a reason Kim Jong-un needed to be confronted. Meanwhile, Fred and Cindy traveled the country reinforcing the narrative that Otto was tortured. Despite how Trump and his administration boosted the narrative that Otto was physically tortured, however, the evidence was not clear-cut.

Lakshmi Kode Sammarco, unexpectedly called a press conference. She explained that she hadn't previously done so out of respect for the Warmbiers.

But her findings, and those of the doctors who had attended Otto, contradicted the Warmbiers' assertions. Other signs of physical trauma were also lacking.

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Both sides of Otto's brain had suffered simultaneously, meaning it had been starved of oxygen. Blows to the head would have likely resulted in asymmetrical, rather than universal, damage. Though the Warmbiers declined a surgical autopsy, non-invasive scans found no hairline bone fractures or other evidence of prior trauma.

I can't really make comments on what they said or their perceptions. But here in this office, we depend on science for our conclusions.

The origin of Otto's injury remained a mystery. Discovering the truth of events that happen in North Korea is a task that even American intelligence agencies struggle with. But Otto's experience after his arrest is not a black hole, as it has often been portrayed. Through intelligence sources, government officials, and senior-level North Korean defectors, and drawing on the experiences of the 15 other Americans who since have been imprisoned in North Korea—some in the same places as Otto—it is possible to describe Otto's probable day-to-day life there.

Within the electrified fences of many of North Korea's notorious prison camps dwell up to , souls, condemned for infractions as minor as watching banned South Korean soap operas.

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The human-rights abuses within have been extensively documented, creating a compelling case that they are among the worst places in the world. The lucky survive on starvation rations while enduring routine beatings and dangerous enforced labor, like coal mining. The unlucky are tortured to death. We had less rights than a dog. They often beat us, and we were so hungry we would catch mice in our cells to eat.

But American detainees escape that fate.



When Otto finally opened his eyes again, he likely found himself at a guesthouse, which is where the State Department believed he was probably kept. At least five previous American detainees have been imprisoned in a two-story building with a green-tiled roof in a gated alleyway behind a restaurant in downtown Pyongyang, which is run by the State Security Department, the North Korean secret police. Others have been kept at a different guesthouse, and at least three have stayed at a hotel.

The most used guesthouse is luxurious by local standards—detainees can hear guards using its karaoke machine into the wee hours—but Otto would have likely found its two-room suites roughly equivalent to those in a basic hotel.

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And no matter how nice his suite, it was also a cell, for he would have been allowed out only for an occasional escorted walk. For the next two months, until his forced confession, Otto would probably have been relentlessly interrogated; American missionary Kenneth Bae said he was questioned up to 15 hours a day.

The goal wasn't to extract the truth but to construct the fabulation that Otto read off handwritten notes at his news conference. In the past, North Korea has spun false confessions from small truths, and in this case they may have construed a conspiracy from a souvenir propaganda poster that Otto had bought, according to Danny Gratton, Otto's tour roommate. Ever since the sailors of the U. Pueblo were beaten in , there have been no clear-cut cases of North Korea physically torturing American prisoners. When Ling and fellow journalist Euna Lee sneaked over the North Korean border, Ling was struck as soldiers detained them.

But once their nationalities were established, they were sent to the green-roofed guesthouse. American media, including The New York Times, have widely repeated the claims that missionary Robert Park was physically tortured, but Park himself has reportedly said that the story that he was stripped naked by female guards and clubbed in the genitals was fabricated by a journalist.

On the contrary, the North Koreans have carefully tended to the health of Americans they have captured, caring for them, if needed, in the Friendship Hospital where Otto was kept; year-old detainee Merrill Newman was reportedly visited by a doctor and nurse four times a day.

They know someday they will have to send them back. But that doesn't mean that North Korea doesn't psychologically torture detained Americans—in fact, it has always tried to bludgeon them into mental submission. I was on trial for all of America, so I had to accept that I had no control and there was no way I could get out of the impending punishment. His only break from the interrogations was likely watching North Korean propaganda films. The psychic trauma of all this has sent previous detainees into crushing depressions, and even driven some to attempt suicide.

In the footage of his news-conference confession, Otto looked physically healthy, but as he sobbed for his freedom, he was obviously in extreme mental distress. Two weeks later, in mid-March, as Otto was filmed after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, his body still looked whole, but his expression was vacant and he had to be supported by two guards as he was dragged out of the courthouse—as if the life had drained out of him.

Speculation suggested that the tragedy might have occurred at a special labor camp for foreigners, where at least three Americans have performed their hard-labor sentences. But Otto almost certainly never made it to the labor camp. Flueckiger told me. The previously unreported detail of when Otto was admitted to the Friendship Hospital changes the narrative of what could have happened to him.

But Otto was apparently unconscious by the next morning. The coroner found no evidence of bludgeoning on Otto's body.

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And when one takes into account that the entire sourced public case that Otto was beaten derives from that single anonymous official who spoke to The New York Times, the theory begins to crack. It is for this paucity of evidence that, though the public discourse about Otto's death has long been dominated by talk of beatings, there have been doubts among North Korea experts that the intelligence reports were correct. Of the dozen experts I spoke to, only a single one thought there was even a remote likelihood that he had been beaten.