Rabbi conducts funeral for student who died after year imprisoned in North Korea

Rabbi conducts funeral for student who died after year imprisoned in North Korea

2,000 people pay respects to Otto Warmbier who passed away after being returned from imprisonment in the secretive state

Otto Warmbier 

(Screenshot from YouTube)
Otto Warmbier (Screenshot from YouTube)

Mourners have gathered for the funeral of a US college student who was detained in North Korea for more than a year and died shortly after returning home in a coma.

Some 2,000 people filled an auditorium, cafeteria and gym at a school in Otto Warmbier’s home town of Wyoming, Ohio, for the service.

More mourners lined the street, with some holding signs of support and pressing the tips of their thumbs together to form a W as a hearse carried away the coffin. A rabbi officiated at the service, which was closed to news media.

Mr Warmbier’s former football coach, Steve Thomas, said the Jewish student came from a religious family and was involved in mission trips and a birthright trip to Israel.

“He had a deep desire to know God in a personal way,” Mr Thomas said. “He wasn’t big on doing things because he was supposed to do it. He did things because he wanted to do them.”

“It doesn’t really feel real yet. He’s so young, and he’s been gone for so long,” said Grady Beerck, 22, a former football team-mate. “The impact he made is always going to last with people.”

According to JTA, the family of Otto Warmbier hid his Jewishness from the public as negotiations for his release took place, a family spokesman said.

The family spokesman, Mickey Bergman, told The Times of Israel that the family chose not to disclose Warmbier’s Judaism as negotiations went forward so as not to embarrass North Korea, which had announced that Warmbier stole the poster on orders from the Friendship United Methodist Church in Wyoming, Ohio.

“If that’s what their story is, there’s no point fighting it if your objective is to get him out,” Bergman, who worked on negotiations for the student’s release, told the Israeli daily. “When you realize he’s Jewish, you realize how ridiculous that claim is.”


Mr Warmbier’s passport and jacket were on display as mourners signed a memorial book.

The attendees included Ambassador Joseph Yun, the US special envoy who travelled to Pyongyang to bring Mr Warmbier back, and US Senator Rob Portman, a Republican from the nearby Cincinnati area.

Mr Portman told reporters that North Korea must be held accountable for what happened to the 22-year-old University of Virginia student, who died on Monday.

“This college kid never should have been detained in the first place,” said Mr Portman, who previously revealed he met secretly with North Korean officials in New York last December to press for Mr Warmbier’s release.

He said North Korea’s treatment of Mr Warmbier demonstrated “a basic disregard for human rights, for human dignity”.

Mr Warmbier was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting North Korea in 2015 and was later convicted of subversion.

His family said they were told that he had been in a coma since shortly after he was sentenced to prison with hard labour in March 2016.

After he returned to Ohio, doctors determined he had suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.

Mr Warmbier’s family objected to a post-mortem examination, so the Hamilton County coroner’s office conducted only an external examination of his body and is still trying to determine his cause of death.

Mourners on Thursday fondly remembered a spirited student-athlete who was socially magnetic and had a positive impact on the people around him, whether it was in class, at a swim club or in his travels.

“Didn’t matter what time of day or what he was doing, he’d drop everything to help his friends,” Mr Beerck said. “He was a goofy kid. He always just lived life to the fullest.”

They heard stories about his life, rap music he listened to and his habit of shopping for sweaters at thrift stores. A bagpiper played as the coffin was carried to a hearse.


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