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Otto Warmbier, American Recently Released By North Korea, Dies At 22


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I just wanted to pass on word that Otto Warmbier has just passed away. He spent a year and a half in North Korea. A lot of bad things happened, but at least we got him home to be with his parents.


President Trump commenting on the death of a 22-year-old American. Otto Warmbier was arrested in North Korea and spent time in prison before being returned in a coma. After his death on Monday, his family said he, quote, "completed his journey home." We're joined by Skype by The Washington Post's Anna Fifield, who has been talking with his family.

Welcome to the program.

ANNA FIFIELD: Thank you. It's good to be here.

INSKEEP: What was Otto Warmbier like?

FIFIELD: Well, his parents described him as a great kid and, you know, and not just in the way that parents do, really. They said that he was a good student at school. He was top of his class at Wyoming High School and also at UVA. He was on the soccer team. He was homecoming king and prom king.

And Cindy Warmbier said to me that you just don't say no to a kid like that, that he'd never given them any reason to - not to trust his judgment completely. And so when he said to them that he wanted to visit North Korea on his way to Hong Kong, that he was curious and had done his research about going there, they didn't say no.

INSKEEP: You are hinting at a question that I've heard from people in the last few days just as this story has developed. People will ask why would he - why would he go to that place? Why would he go to North Korea at all? Do you have any idea what really drove him to do that?

FIFIELD: Well, I think for a lot of people out there, a lot of intrepid travelers, North Korea is kind of the holy grail. You know, it's so difficult to go there, so few people have been there that there's a lot of cachet in starting a travel story, you know, when I was in Pyongyang last year. So I think a lot of people want to go, want to experience it for themselves.

Tourists that I've spoken to in Pyongyang say that they hear so much about North Korea in the media, and they wanted to see it with their own eyes. And what Cindy and Fred Warmbier said to me was that Otto was just curious and wanted to find out more about North Korea and the North Korean people.

INSKEEP: Did his parents believe the story that was told by North Korean authorities, that he'd stolen some kind of propaganda banner - some very minor offense - and that's why he was thrown in prison?

FIFIELD: Not entirely, they weren't sure about this. And there was this very grainy footage that was supposedly of Otto Warmbier pulling down the poster. So that wasn't conclusive. But either way, they said to me that, you know, even if he had tried to pull down this propaganda sign, the idea that this, you know, kind of silly act would result in a 15-year prison term with hard labor was completely out of whack with the crime - disproportionate. And he should never have been sentenced to that kind of prison term.

INSKEEP: Now that he's dead, what questions remain for you and for his family?

FIFIELD: The big question is how did he end up in this coma in the first place. The - we saw that he was in court, that he was sentenced in March last year to 15 years in prison during this kind of coerced confession that he was made to give earlier. He was obviously very distraught during that, but he was in good health. He was wearing his own clothes, and he seemed to be, you know, as OK as he could be in those circumstances.

So the question is then is what happened in the days, maybe week after that that caused him to fall into this coma? And I don't know that we'll ever know the answer to this since Otto Warmbier is not here to tell us. And I don't hold out much hope of the North Koreans ever coming clean on this either.

INSKEEP: Anna Fifield, thanks very much.

FIFIELD: Sure, you're welcome.

INSKEEP: She is Tokyo bureau chief for The Washington Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.