Lest We Forget: Haunting Image of Otto Warmbier Demands Action Against North Korean Regime

By Abraham Cooper


Rabbi Abraham Cooper is Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a Board Member of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. 


(Image Credit: Japan Times)

“One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic” is a quote attributed to the late Soviet dictator and 20th century mass murderer par excellence, Josef Stalin.

Today, even in our overloaded social media world, it is still true that a single image can sometimes awaken our auto-pilot apathy.

One such image was the sight of a catatonic 22 year-old dumped on America’s doorstep by the brutal North Korean regime just days before Otto Warmbier battered brain stopped functioning altogether.

The North Korean regime arrested young Warmbier for allegedly stealing a poster, sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor and returned a shell of a person—unable to communicate—to die.

But Americans would be wrong to assume that Warmbier’s death was “a senseless act of violence.” Or that he was released as a humanitarian gesture. It wasn’t. It was murder. The North Koreans put him in a coma, hid that fact for over a year and then sent back the destroyed young man so he wouldn’t die on their watch.

Rather than avert our eyes from this brutal episode and unspeakable crime, we’d best be paying close attention to what happened and drawing necessary conclusions:

Why was this young American arrested and brutalized? 

First, is because the North Korean regime hates America and Americans.

As long-time observer of North Korea, Joshua Stanton observed:
“Pyongyang has made the hatred of Americans a national virtue. It indoctrinates its little children to hate us. All that prevents it from murdering us on a greater scale is that it still lacks the means to do so.”

Secondly, for North Korea, apparently there is an empowering nexus between the arrest, incarceration and brutalization of helpless Americans like Wambier, and Pyongyang’s escalating missile and nuclear provocations targeting and taunting the US and her allies. Punishing an American citizen for the crimes—alleged or real—of the United States government is a perfectly legitimate response in Kim Jong-un’s warped world. In his mind there are zero degrees of separation between the government of the US and its citizens.

Clearly, no American, whatever their political beliefs, should venture into North Korea until there is a regime change.

Third, as we grieve with and for the Warmbier family we should know that millions of unknown North Koreans are similarly subjected to the brutality of Kim Jong-un’s regime. More than 100,000 men, women and children are being tortured, starved, and abused in North Korea’s political prison camps. This continuing outrage demands international action; not only tougher sanctions, but also a serious effort to help uncover and disclose the truth about the regime’s unspeakable crimes against its own people.

Fourth, the viciousness of Kim’s regime underscores the very real threat posed to the world by a nuclearized North Korea, capable of launching missiles at the US, South Korea, and Japan. For if Kim Jong-un and his lackeys murder their own people, they will have no compunction in mass-murdering our people.

Finally, we shouldn’t be surprised or fooled by North Korea denying that they are responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death. Such tactics were deployed by 20th Century tyrants like Stalin.

But is important for new generations in the 21st century that there will always be those among us who lack to courage to call evil out even when its victims are dumped on our doorstep. Instead they will blame the victim, boldly declaring that young Otto Warmbier got what he deserved,” perhaps because he was too “white” or maybe even a Zionist spy.”

To remember Otto Warmbier and to ensure his brutal death is not forgotten, we should support the dedicated activists and NGOs who strive against all odds to inform, persuade, and inspire leaders of civilized nations to take action against the regime in Pyongyang. A single death has forced us to confront North Korea’s challenge to global security and human decency. At a time when bipartisanship is virtually extinct in Washington, every member of the US Senate and House of Representatives should take one last look at Otto Warmbier's picture. Republicans and Democrats alike should reach across the aisle and foster bipartisan support for the millions of faceless, nameless North Korean victims, by elevating the importance of their forgotten human rights, on equal footing with the Administration’s efforts to counter Pyongyang’s burgeoning nuclear threat.

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