A Canadian man who was once detained in North Korea says Otto Warmbier’s death was probably the result of gross negligence in a system that simply allows prison inmates to wither away and die, without any thought of medical treatment.
While on a five-day tour of North Korea, American student Warmbier was arrested for “hostile acts” against the state after he stole a propaganda poster, and sentenced to 15 years hard labor. Around a year and a half later, he was released after falling into a coma, and died in a U.S. hospital, making global headlines.
“No one went out of their way to hurt him,” surmised James Leigh, who was earlier this year detained at Pyongyang’s airport, in an interview with Borderless News Online. “He might have got sick and was ignored long enough to die. My guess is they lose a lot of prisoners,” said Leigh, who has a security background.
While Leigh has no inside information on the case, he has an intimate knowledge of how North Korea interrogates foreigners, what methods they use, and how prisoners are treated, having been briefly detained in North Korea himself.
“My true guess is that he got a fever (or contracted some illness) but nobody did anything about it,” Leigh says of Warmbier, explaining that prisoners in North Korea have no rights to medical attention, and guards will allow them to simply waste away and die.
“If you’re a prisoner there you’re shit and no one cares if you live or die,” he said.
Indeed, North Korean defectors have said they’d never heard of the concept of human rights while in North Korea. There, everyone is the subject of the state, which is all-powerful. The state is embodied in leader Kim Jong Un, who is revered as a god.
“Otto was a kid. No one thought he was a spy,” Leigh says.
Leigh says it’s likely that Warmbier was grilled at the beginning about who he was and why he was there, but that limited interrogation tactics were probably used, as the North Koreans didn’t want to harm an individual who could have been a potential asset.
“They’re smart enough to know they need to know who the guy is. But in the beginning they don’t want to hurt an asset,” he says.
“No one was dumb enough to think Otto was a spy,” Leigh says, explaining that they would see right away that Warmbier was simply a college student with no military or intelligence training.
Leigh would know.
While on a recent trip to Malaysia, he found himself in an elevator with four men speaking Korean among themselves, who were surprised when Leigh, a Caucasian man fluent in Korean, was able to join in the conversation.
After inviting him for a drink, he learned that the men, wearing business suits, were actually North Korean military brass.
They invited him to North Korea via China, where a North Korean representative booked him a flight on Air Koryo, North Korea’s state airline. He arrived on Army Foundation Day, a North Korean national holiday, and was slated to remain about five or six days.
But upon arrival, airport security became suspicious of him, and Leigh believes it could have been because his phone was empty of photos or texts.
They were “really flustered” about why he didn’t have anything on his phone, and asked why he was hiding things.
“I think that triggered it but I’m not sure,” he says, adding that they also could have Googled him and found a few previous news articles about his background in the security field.
For Leigh, the reason was simple – he simply didn’t want strangers going through this emails and personal information.
In the airport, there were offices converted into holding rooms, which functioned as detention areas, although they were not initially designed to fulfill that function.
Over the next few days, the guards employed a number of intimidation tactics. Armed guards would cock their weapons in firing positions and point them at his head. Guards constantly kept him awake with noise outside, and he was given minimal food, just a bowl of rice with fish. His use of the bathroom was restricted, and it would take 2 hours for the guard to take him to the bathroom after he requested it. The room’s temperature was kept very cold on purpose, and questions were voiced in a very forceful way, with lots of yelling.
Leigh says he was able to communicate with the person being held in the room next door, which he says was Tony Kim, a Korean-American being held by the North Koreans.
Leigh says he heard what sounded like Kim being hit with a wooden cane or a stick.
He attributes his coming out of the deal to his sense of humor, and that he was able to make the guards laugh.
“I told them I had to get back home to return a book to the library,” he says.
Leigh is not the only foreigner to even have been interrogated and released from North Korea. Last year, BBC journalist Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was in the country for a few days to cover a Nobel Laureate delegation visit, and was refused permission to depart, on grounds that his articles had insulted the people of North Korea.
“I spent only 10 hours in detention. But in that time I got to see just how easy it is for someone in North Korea to disappear. I got to feel the terror of being isolated and accused of crimes I had not committed, and to be threatened with a trial in which the evidence would have been irrelevant, and my guilt assured,” the journalist wrote in an article after the incident.
Upon departing North Korea after his short trip there, he was detained at the airport. In characteristic North Korean style, he was told no information about the reason for his detention, a tactic likely used to prevent him from protesting in public view.
He was ushered into a car and taken to a conference room, where teams would interrogate him in shifts, screaming at him and accusing him of the “crime” of insulting North Korea, in an attempt to wear him down and get him to confess to the “crime.”
In North Korea, once you confess to a crime, it’s all over. There’s a kangaroo trial in which evidence does not matter, and guilt is guaranteed. No one is ever found not guilty once they go on trial in North Korea.
In the end, the interrogators told him to write a letter of apology and all would be forgiven. And then, true to the North Korean tactic of deceiving victims, the interrogators changed their minds, and then wanted him to stand up and read the letter out loud. There was a video camera in the corner, and Wingfield-Hayes refused.
It’s likely that any “confession” would be used as propaganda, and possible that it would have been enough to put him on trial, where he would have been found guilty.
Once in the hands of North Korean authorities, victims don’t come out. They are considered guilty just by the fact they are being questioned.
Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was eventually set free, perhaps by some miracle.
Interrogation in North Korea is said to be brutal.
In 2014, a United Nations Human Rights found that that interrogation often involves torture, and can last for months.
“Suspects of major political wrongs may find themselves in a detention interrogation center anywhere from a few days to six months or more,” it said.
“Torture is an established feature of the interrogation process,” it said, adding that North Koreans have testified about a facility of the State Security Department that has shackles used to hang people upside down, and long needles that are pushed under people’s fingernails.
“Many suspects die at interrogation detention centers as a result of torture, deliberate starvation or illnesses developed or aggravated by the terrible living conditions,” the report said.
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