The family of a Jewish man jailed by North Korea who later died of injuries sustained while in custody attended US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in Washington.
Trump mentioned Otto Warmbier during the address as he spoke about the threat posed by Pyongyang, which he said “could very soon threaten” American soil, and recognized his parents and siblings.
Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was visiting the reclusive Asian nation on a New Year’s student tour in January 2016. He was arrested just before departing Pyongyang International Airport. Earlier in his trip, he was briefly detained for taking down a sign on a staff-only floor at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, where he was staying.
Almost two months later, he appeared at a staged news conference, clearly under coercion, where he gave a tearful confession and begged for forgiveness. In June 2017, he was returned to the US in a coma and died days later, with his family and Trump claiming he had been tortured.
“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” he said toward the end of his 80-minute-long address.
“Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia, and a great student he was,” Trump said. “On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea. At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return.”
Warmbier’s mother, Cindy, wiped away tears as Congress gave the family two standing ovations. Warmbier’s father Fred and siblings Austin and Greta were also at the landmark annual address.
“Incredible people. You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all. Thank you very much. Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with total American resolve,” Trump said.
Warmbier, from Wyoming, Ohio, was active in the Jewish community at the University of Virginia and had attended a Birthright trip to Israel in 2014.
Rabbi Jake Rubin, executive director of the Brody Jewish Center at the University of Virginia, called Warmbier “one of the most intellectually curious people I’ve ever met” during a memorial service at Wyoming High School near Cincinnati shortly after Warmbier’s death.
A negotiator involved in Warmbier’s release said his Jewishness was hidden while he was in custody as a tactic because he was accused by Pyongyang of acting on behalf of the United Methodist Church.
“The family chose, rightfully so, not to share that information while he was in captivity… because they didn’t want to embarrass [North Korea] by explaining that he actually was Jewish” and thus would not have been affiliated with the church, Mickey Bergman told The Times of Israel last year.
Trump also mentioned another person tortured by the regime, Ji Seong-ho, who managed to escape to China.
“Seong-ho’s story is a testament to the yearning of every human soul to live in freedom,” he said.
Tensions between Washington and North Korea have rocketed in recent months, with the US pushing for heavier sanctions amid mutual threats of nuclear attacks.
“North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland,” Trump said.
In November, Trump mentioned Warmbier while declaring Pyongyang a state sponsor of terror.
North Korea has denied the torture claims and accused Trump of exploiting Warmbier’s death.