January 30, 2023

Remembering Otto Warmbier

By Robert Collins

January 30, 2023

Just before Christmas 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which included the “Otto Warmbier Countering North Korean Censorship and Surveillance Act.” The law “authorizes $10 million annually for the next five years to counter North Korea’s repressive censorship and surveillance state.”

Otto was imprisoned and tortured by the Kim regime for reasons that seem petty to almost all of us, but were taken exceedingly seriously by the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) and the Ministry of State Security (MSS). Otto died days after being returned to the United States to meet his family, unable to talk due to the torture that the North Korean regime inflicted on him.

The MSS took Otto into custody after he reportedly took down a propaganda poster in the hotel he was staying at. This seems like a minor infraction to us in the West. However, if the poster had the name of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, or Kim Jong-un on it, this act would be regarded as the worst of all crimes in North Korea—even worse than first-degree murder. This is not only law in North Korea, but most importantly, it is the firm policy of the KWP. Historically, North Koreans have been executed immediately for such an offense.

Any North Korean court official, security officer, or KWP member who fails to respond in the most brutal manner toward an offense against the Supreme Leader would be immediately imprisoned, along with their family members. It is hard to imagine that any government would punish its security personnel for failing to be brutal enough, but this is a fact of political life under the Kim family regime.

Otto had no way of knowing this. His youthful innocence resulted in him being detained by the ye-sim-gwa (pre-trial examination section) of the MSS. These interrogators are notorious for inflicting extremely harsh torture on the accused to extract confessions. There have been plenty of reports about detainees dying during interrogations.

North Korea’s courts, which are driven by party policy and not the rule of law, then issue a sentence based on forced confessions. Detainees are then sent to another detention facility, where they continue to face torture by the guards. The most extreme of these facilities are the Kim regime’s kwan-li-so political prison camps. Testimony on the horrific torture inflicted upon political prison camp detainees is beyond abundant.

Why the torture? In 2005, then-Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il directed security and prison officials to treat those incarcerated in political prison camps and related facilities as “poisonous grass.” He urged those that dealt with the incarcerated to root out the “poisonous grass” to “defend the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Supreme Leader directives are regarded as superior to the law in North Korea. They must be immediately and strictly implemented without hesitation. In other words, those who work in the ye-sim-gwa or the detention facilities must prove themselves loyal to Supreme Leader directives. How so?

Unlike any other country in the world, every North Korean, beginning at the age of nine and until they die, must conduct a public self-evaluation of their adherence to the directives of the Supreme Leaders—Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un—and how their performance falls short of these directives. They must criticize themselves, never compliment themselves. This is referred to as saenghwal chonghwa—lifestyle self-critique. The self-critique is followed by criticism from others.

This is done at least weekly, usually on Saturdays. Records of these self-critiques are kept by the organizational secretary of the KWP committee, which is embedded in every entity in North Korea—party, government, military, economic, or social. These records are transmitted to the all-powerful KWP Organization and Guidance Department (OGD). The OGD assigns a political action officer to manage every organization or regional area, including detention facilities.

There is an OGD political action officer or team of political action officers that monitor the ye-sim-gwa and detention facilities. These officers prepare reports for the Supreme Leader when deemed necessary. Considering how visible Otto’s trial was, it is difficult to believe that the North Korean leadership was not aware of exactly how he was being treated.

How does all of this inform our understanding of what happened to Otto? The interrogators in the ye-sim-gwa and Otto’s incarcerators would have had to admit their inadequate ill-treatment of Otto during self-critique sessions. Their fellow torturers and incarcerators would have had to complain that the official undergoing self-critique was not being brutal enough toward Otto. The brutal treatment of Otto was likely far more severe than that suffered by incarcerated North Koreans.

Many who are incarcerated in North Korea are forced to admit to fabricated charges or testify to some other fiction. Otto was also shown publicly apologizing in court. However, there is no evidence of subsequent cooperation with his torturers. Indeed, it is evident he did not cooperate any further. The North Korean regime would have made it public otherwise. Otto appears to have successfully resisted in a heroic manner, and we should remember him for that.