Otto Warmbier versus the Republic of Torture

By Robert Collins


As he announced the re-listing of North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on November 20, President Trump referred to the death of Otto Warmbier while in North Korean custody. The young Ohio native’s death was a tragedy, and just the latest occurrence of the unbelievable cruelty that human beings suffer at the hands of the Kim family regime. The parents of Otto were interviewed on national television about the arrival of their son from North Korea and the terrible condition he was in. Mr. Warmbier expressed how it was obvious to him that his son had been tortured due to the condition of his teeth and a severe cut on his foot.

When Otto arrived back home, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center could not determine the exact nature of the injuries that left Otto with “an extensive loss of brain tissue.” Following that, local coroners stated that they could not see decisive evidence or proof of torture. However, the human rights community is well informed on North Korea’s use of torture against those imprisoned by the regime’s party-state. Historically, tens of thousands of North Koreans have suffered the same fate as Otto–death at the hands of the regime’s security apparatus–as have other foreigners in decades past.

North Korea’s criminal justice system is guided by the Kim regime’s political ideology far more than criminal law. Regime founder Kim Il-sung and his son-successor Kim Jong-il publicly stated that the law exists to serve political purposes and those purposes are designed to serve the North’s supreme leader. Consequently, those who are accused of a political crime are automatically treated as an enemy of the state. The worst “enemies” are those that slander the personage or name of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un. Otto allegedly tore down a propaganda poster praising Kim Jong-il. Under the Kim regime, such an act is regarded as a direct threat to the security of the supreme leader. In notorious North Korean practice, such a crime is punishable by the most draconian of methods, as evidenced by the regime’s slaughter for the past five and a half years of hundreds of ranking military, government, and Party cadre perceived as opposing or disrespecting Kim Jong-un. Hundreds of testimonies from North Korean defectors confirmed torture while imprisoned or being investigated.

For those arrested by the Kim regime’s security apparatus, torture begins immediately after arrest. The Ministry of People’s Security (MPS) is North Korea’s national police, and MPS officers are stationed at every level of North Korean society down to the village level. Unlike countries where the police conduct their mission according to law, MPS officers, as well as their counterparts in the Ministry of State Security (MSS), employ the Korean Workers’ Party’s (KWP) doctrinal “ten principles of monolithic ideology” (TPMI) as their base justification for arrest. Though North Korea has a criminal code delineating what constitutes a crime, the TPMI is used to judge the type, severity, and nature of the crime. Every North Korean is responsible for memorizing these principles in school, the workplace, and at home. Police officers, members of the other security services, and legal officials are evaluated weekly in a KWP format on their performance of duty in relation to the TPMI. Individual careers are forged through showing the chain of command thoroughness in vetting alleged, potential, and actual “criminals” through the prism of the TPMI.

After Otto was arrested, standard North Korean police practice would have handed him over from the Pyongyang Police Bureau to the MPS Pretrial Examination Bureau (PEB). MPS PEB officers are responsible for criminal investigations and for reporting the results of the investigations not only to the local prosecutor’s office, but also to their KWP representatives. The latter are those within the Party that judge the MPS PEB officers and their counterparts in the MSS PEB on their efficiency in protecting the supreme leader and the regime. PEB officers are notorious in North Korea for their ruthless investigative methods based on extracting confessions from the accused. As attested by numerous North Korean escapees, confessions are the “queen of evidence” and torture is employed systematically and ruthlessly to obtain such confessions. To succeed in their specific profession, each PEB officer must develop competency in torture to extract the confessions that prosecutors employ in criminal trials. Depending on the nature of the case, this torture continues during and even after the trial if the prisoner does not comply with instructions on behavior and obedience to directives. In the case of many arrested for political crimes, trials are bypassed and torture becomes part of the retribution and sentencing as the arrested are sent directly to political prison camps. PEB officers are professionally rewarded for their efficiency.

The type of torture Otto must have experienced is quite telling in terms of his likely resistance. The vast majority of foreigners succumb to the pressures and threats of torture early and comply with directives while in custody. However, resistance to the demands of the PEB officers and prosecutors–whether those demands be for propaganda purposes (which is the case most of the time) or actions in support of regime intent in foreign policy–will result in further and more specific torture.

This torture does not apply to all. Many foreigners who are arrested are handled for eventual release to suit a diplomatic purpose—but not all. Even as far back as the 1960s, Venezuelan Ali Lameda and Frenchman Jacques Sedillot served as translators in North Korea but were subsequently accused of being spies and imprisoned. They were tortured regularly and the latter died in Pyongyang. In 1982, Joseph White deserted from the U.S. Army’s 2nd Infantry Division and crossed the DMZ. He suspiciously ended up drowning in a North Korean river two years later.

Otto’s condition upon arrival in Cincinnati indicates that Otto resisted PEB officer demands. For the time period Otto was tortured, it is apparent that he bravely resisted the torturers face-to-face, thus the torture. The intensity of the torture should not be underestimated. The PEB officers likely miscalculated the intensity and impact of their torture on Otto in terms of what they thought they could get away with. Several forms of torture would not have left visible external trauma, including water-boarding, electrical shock, and physical confinement in small boxes.

Those who understand the functioning of the North Korean internal security system in detail will be able to tell that Otto likely displayed courage in the face of torture by the most brutal of modern regimes.

North Korea’s practice of torture of individuals in detention violates Articles 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which North Korea acceded to in 1981. Article 7 states, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” while Article 10(1) states, “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.” As part of two Universal Periodic Review cycles for North Korea to date, 19 recommendations by UN Member States to North Korea have explicitly addressed torture. These recommendations call for North Korea to accede to or ratify the Convention against Torture, take immediate steps to stop the use of torture and ill-treatment in all instances of deprivation of freedom, and grant the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Violence against Women access to its detention facilities.

Should change come to the Korean peninsula, MPS and MSS PEB officers who conduct this torture in North Korea must be held accountable under future transitional justice mechanisms. 

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