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The Lasting and Important Legacy of Otto Warmbier

College student and beloved son 'did not die in vain,' as the president emphasized at his Singapore summit

Otto Warmbier’s short life had a sad ending that millions of people around the globe became familiar with and despaired over, but his death — and his life — will not soon be forgotten.

Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from Cincinnati, Ohio, was jailed in North Korea in March 2016 after he was arrested for taking a poster from a hotel he stayed in while on a tour of Pyongyang.

He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

He was released by the North Korean government in June of 2017 and was in a coma when he arrived back in the U.S. — doctors at the time termed it “unresponsive wakefulness,” as multiple outlets reported.

He died on June 19, 2017.

His life’s influence extends far beyond his home country’s borders — and as proof of that, President Donald Trump had him in mind during a Tuesday news conference in Singapore after his historic meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

“Otto Warmbier is a very special person, and he will be for a long time in my life,” said the president. “His parents are good friends of mine. I think without Otto, this would not have happened,” Trump told reporters, referring of course to the face-to-face meeting with Kim.

“Something happened from that day — [it] was a terrible thing. It was brutal,” the president continued. “But a lot of people started to focus on what was going on, including North Korea. I really think that Otto is someone who did not die in vain. He had a lot to do with us today.”

Related: Were the Media at the Same Summit as Trump?

Fred and Cindy Warmbier issued a statement on Tuesday after the president made his remarks. “We appreciate President Trump’s recent comments about our family,” the parents said. “We are proud of Otto and miss him.” They added that they hoped “something positive can come from this.”

The historic summit, at which the president and Kim signed a joint statement agreeing to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, was held on the anniversary of Warmbier’s release.

It remains a mystery as to what exactly killed Warmbier, as NBC News and others reported. The North Koreans claimed that Warmbier contracted botulism, caused by a rare toxin, and subsequently fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.

Doctors in Cincinnati found no evidence of botulism, but they also said there were no signs of fractures to indicate he was beaten into the coma.

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The Warmbiers are suing North Korea, alleging that country tortured and otherwise mistreated their son, leading to his death.

“I think without Otto, this would not have happened,” Trump told reporters.

“North Korea’s conduct was willful, outrageous, extreme and dangerous to human life, and violates applicable criminal law and all international standards of civilized human conduct and common decency,” the lawsuit states, reported NPR.

The Warmbiers are asking for punitive damages.

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor with LifeZette. Follow her on Twitter.

(photo credit, homepage and article images: Otto Warmbier’s Real Memorial Page, Facebook)

meet the author

Deirdre Reilly is a senior editor for LifeZette.