As It Happens

'Now is the time to speak up,' says former North Korean prisoner after Otto Warmbier's death

Kenneth Bae was heartbroken when learned that a U.S. college student had died less than a week after he was released from a North Korean prison camp.
Kenneth Bae was arrested in North Korea in December 2012 and charged with recruiting people to bring down the government. He was held for 735 days. (Getty Images)

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Kenneth Bae was heartbroken when learned that a U.S. college student had died less than a week after he was released from a North Korean prison camp.

"It's been just devastating to see what happened with Otto Warmbier," Bae, who was the longest held U.S. prisoner in North Korea since the Korean War, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

"I was very upset and not able to, you know, do anything else other than thinking about his family, and I was mourning with the family at this time."

Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, died on Monday, six days after he arrived home from North Korea in a comatose state. 

The North Korean government has said he went into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill shortly after his 2016 arrest, but his parents told The Associated Press their son had "been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime."

Doctors in Cincinnati said they found no active sign of botulism or evidence of beatings.

Bae did not want to speculate Warmbier's cause of death, but said the regime's explanation "doesn't make any sense."

"I just can't understand how something like this would affect him in this way," he said.

Otto Warmbier, centre, is taken to North Korea's top court in Pyongyang in this photo released by the country's state media agency on March 16, 2016. (Kyodo/Reuters)

Bae, a Korean-American missionary, was detained in 2012 and held for 735 days on charges of planning to overthrow the North Korean government.

Sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, Bae was forced to work 10-hour days, six days a week. He was intermittently hospitalized during due to malnutrition and back problems. 

"I was losing weight rapidly because the food that I was eating was not enough to keep up," he said.

Kenneth Bae and his mother Myung Hee Bae embrace as they reunite after he landed aboard a U.S. Air Force jet at McChord Field at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington on Nov. 8, 2014. (Anthony Bolante/Reuters)

Despite this, he was shocked by what became of Warmbier.

"I was never physically tortured or abused. Therefore, I was expecting that because he was also American, he would be treated decently," he said.

Bae has spoken with North Korean defectors about their own prison experiences, and says the regime treats its own citizens much worse than foreign prisoners, who are often used as political bargaining chips. 

"So I thought that even though he was there, he wouldn't be treated as harshly as they would treat their own prisoners."

Warmbier was convicted in 2016 of subversion and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour after he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group.

"I'm sure he was told what to say at the press conference," Bae said. 

In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, student Otto Warmbier confesses in a press conference in Pyongyang. (Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press)

It's a spectacle he knows well. Bae had his own press conference in 2014, shortly after U.S. basketball player Dennis Rodman — a repeat visitor to North Korea — called for his release.

He said he was put in front of cameras and ordered to confess, apologize, beg for mercy and ask the U.S. to intervene. They even had him rehearse his script several times before the actual event. 

"The only thing I could do at the time was agree to whatever the charges they were saying at the time," Bae said.

"It wasn't physical torture, but they do have some few remarks indicating that if you don't co-operate, then we'll have to do some other way to get your confession."

During his own press conference, Kenneth Bae says he was instructed on exactly what to say. ( Korean Central News Agency via Reuters)

Three U.S. citizens, as well as one Canadian, are currently being held in North Korea.

Hyeon Soo Lim, a pastor who has lived in the Toronto area for three decades after emigrating from South Korea, has been detained in North Korea since 2015. 

"Because of what happened to Mr. Warmbier, I do believe now is the time to speak up. We need to have one voice," Bae said. 

"We as a public need to be aware of it and continue to ask the governments, the U.S. government and the Canadian government, to step in and do something right away."

With files from Associated Press and CBC News