Within 48 hours of his return, Otto had a fever that had risen to 104 degrees. After doctors confirmed to Fred and Cindy that their son would never be cognizant again, they directed that his feeding tube be removed. 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. Wearing an American-flag tie, Fred watched his son “complete his journey home” with a haggard stare.
After a mourning period, Fred and Cindy appeared on Fox & Friends in September 2017, once more reportedly seeking to catch the president's eye, and called the North Koreans “terrorists” who had “intentionally injured” Otto. Fred graphically described damage to Otto's teeth and foot as the result of torture and demanded that the administration punish the dictatorship. Shortly afterward, the president showed his approval by tweeting “great interview” and noting that Otto was “tortured beyond belief by North Korea.” To lobby for the United States to take legal action against North Korea, Fred hired the lawyer who represents Vice President Mike Pence in the special counsel's Russia investigation. In early November, Congress backed banking restrictions against North Korea that were named for Otto. And later that month, Trump designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, which would allow harsher future sanctions, stating, “As we take this action today, our thoughts turn to Otto Warmbier.”
“Being imprisoned was lonely, isolating, and frustrating,” Kenneth Bae, an American who’d been detained in North Korea, told me. “I was on trial for all of America.”
Around the same time as Otto's death, U.S. hostilities with North Korea were growing heated. This was the period of “fire and fury,” and of Trump and Kim comparing who had the “bigger & more powerful” nuclear buttons. 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. When making a case for a forceful response against North Korea to the South Korean National Assembly, in November 2017, Trump said their common enemy had “tortured Otto Warmbier, ultimately leading to that fine young man's death.” In his January 2018 State of the Union address, Trump pledged to keep “maximum pressure” on North Korea and to “honor Otto's memory with total American resolve,” while the Warmbiers wept in the gallery. Meanwhile, Fred and Cindy traveled the country reinforcing the narrative that Otto was tortured. As Cindy told the United Nations in New York City, “I can't let Otto die in vain.” In April 2018, the Warmbiers, seeking damages, filed a lawsuit alleging that North Korea “brutally tortured and murdered” their son.
Despite how Trump and his administration boosted the narrative that Otto was physically tortured, however, the evidence was not clear-cut. The day after the Warmbiers went on national television to declare that Otto had been “systematically tortured and intentionally injured,” a coroner who had examined Otto, Dr. 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.
Fred had described Otto's teeth as having been “re-arranged” with pliers, but Sammarco reiterated that the postmortem exam found that “the teeth [were] natural and in good repair.” She discovered no significant scars, dismissing the one on his foot as not definitively indicative of anything. Other signs of physical trauma were also lacking. 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. “His body was in excellent condition,” Sammarco said. “I'm sure he had to have round-the-clock care to be able to maintain the skin in the condition it was in.” When asked about the Warmbiers' claims, Sammarco answered, “They're grieving parents. 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.” Three other individuals who had close contact with Otto on his return also did not notice any physical signs consistent with torture.