North Korea is known to have detained 16 American citizens since 1996, including three who are still in custody. They have been subjected to varying degrees of mental abuse but less often physical torture.
Since North Korea has generally refrained from physically abusing the Americans it has held, it makes the case of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who had been serving a 15-year sentence in North Korea, even more striking.
Mr. Warmbier was released in a coma and returned on Tuesday to the United States. A senior American official has said the United States obtained intelligence reports that he had been repeatedly beaten.
Dr. Daniel Kanter, director of the Neurocritical Care Program at the University of Cincinnati, said at a news conference, Warmbier has “severe injuries to all regions of the brain.”
Warmbier’s fate has cast new attention on how North Korea treats foreigners in captivity.
Despite its longstanding enmity toward the United States and its allies, North Korea has been deeply sensitive to outside criticism of its human rights record, billing itself as a righteous nation that respects international norms. It has used American prisoners as bargaining chips in dealing with Washington. The prospect that the Americans might eventually be released as part of negotiations seems to have influenced their treatment.
The worst known case of abuse before Mr. Warmbier was that of Robert Park, a Christian missionary who said he was severely beaten by North Korean soldiers after he was caught in 2009 while walking across the border from China waving a Bible. After he was transferred to Pyongyang, North Korea, he said, he was subjected to torture –beating of his genitals with a club– so horrific he begged for death.
The news about Mr. Warmbier has also deepened the anxiety among families of South Koreans and Japanese citizens held in the North. One relative said he was shocked to hear of Mr. Warmbier’s release in a coma. “It’s like a warning to the U.S.,” he said.
[New York Times]