I confess that I have not yet been able to process what Otto Warmbier and his family have had to endure this past year and a half. His homecoming and death continue to haunt me and so many of my colleagues in the North Korea human rights movement. What is it that makes Otto so different from other Americans who have been held by this regime?
I should be able to process this as my claim to fame is having hosted the very first defectors from North Korea to bear witness to the horrors of the Kim dictatorships back in the late 1990s. And since that time, over the past two decades, I have hosted literally hundreds of North Korean defectors to testify in Congress, and the United Nations, and many other venues, about the suffering they endured under the North Korea regime. So many have now escaped – over 30,000 — that there is no longer any dispute about the atrocious violations of human rights and crimes against humanity the people born just north of the DMZ face every day. That was not the case when I began this work in 1996.
I confess that there are so many times over these two decades I could not sleep through the night remembering the tragic stories and testimonies. And so many times I have wanted to give up this work because it is such an ongoing tragic situation.
I knew another American, Robert Park, before he went to North Korea, and after they released him following 43 days of torture. I know the tremendous suffering he faced, but Robert knew the evil of this regime before he entered that Christmas Day in 2009. He confronted it head on, calling for that regime to end its horrific violations against its own people. I remember being part of candlelight vigils earlier that year for another American, Laura Ling, and her counterpart, Euna Lee, the two reporters who went to report on the terrors facing North Korean refugees and the trafficking in China of the women of North Korea. Despite being sentenced to 12 years of hard labor, these two women were released after five months when former President Bill Clinton successfully brought them home. They knew the dangers of reporting in this region and suffered greatly simply for trying to expose the situation facing North Korean women in China.
Most recently, Kenneth Bae was released after two years of imprisonment and suffering after having spent many years working successfully in North Korea. I thought innocently that Otto, like Bae, would be forced to manual labor like planting trees and be able to endure his imprisonment and come home.
But now it is clear Otto faced the worst this regime could deliver. What he endured was horrific and he came home only to die. And that is why it is so hard to process. Unlike any of these others, who knew well the nature of the Kim regime, Otto was totally different. What makes it so hard to process is that Otto represents the pure innocence of youth, the goodness in all of us, basic humanity. He represents all that is good about being a young person raised in a free country like America: A young man full of optimism and hope, a person who loved fun and adventure beloved by his family and his friends for his great spirit. What makes this all so hard to process is we have just now witnessed what happens when the pure innocence and curiosity of youth comes into direct conflict with pure evil. It shatters our souls and pierces our hearts because we cannot fathom how a young man like Otto could have been treated so cruelly and have his young life cut so tragically short.
If we can learn anything from this, we must never forget Otto Warmbier as an example of the evil the North Korea regime is capable of inflicting on a wonderful innocent soul whose only mistake was not understanding the pure evil of the North Korea regime. We must honor Otto’s memory by using this knowledge to help liberate the other 25 million innocent souls still languishing under this horrific regime whose only crime was having the misfortune of being born north of the DMZ.
Suzanne Scholte is one of the world’s leading North Korea human rights activists, the recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize and chairs the North Korea Freedom Coalition.