Two Ohioans have been held captive in North Korea, but the contrasts in their health upon their homecomings could hardly have been more stark.
Otto Warmbier was carried off a plane in Cincinnati as he lay comatose last week, just days before his death Monday. Funeral services for the 22-year-old are Thursday.
In the fall of 2014, Jeffrey Fowle came off a plane at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base unaided — “like walking on a cloud,” he said last week — as the 56-year-old West Carrollton man awaited the embraces of his wife and children.
Days after his release, Fowle described the first weeks of his five-month detention as long hours of isolation in “a high-rise tourist hotel” and said he was never physically threatened.
“I was on the 36th floor as it turned out, a suite type of hotel room,” he told this news organization. “Nice quarters. It was a double room, two beds and a small conference center.”
After more than three weeks, “….we moved to a hospitality center on the north end of the city,” Fowle added. “It was a similar type of situation because the rooms were bigger. My bedroom was probably 25 (feet) by 30 (feet) almost like a sunroom area, and there was a little conference center.”
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Questions surround Warmbier’s treatment after he was taken captive in early 2016 and later sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster. Cincinnati doctors say he has suffered “severe neurological injury,” with extensive loss of brain tissue and “profound weakness and contraction” of his muscles, arms and legs.
North Korean officials said Warmbier contracted botulism. But what killed him may well remain a mystery. The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office said Tuesday his family requested no autopsy and said the cause of death was inconclusive.
A public service for Warmbier is set for 9 a.m. Thursday at his alma mater, Wyoming High School, 106 Pendery Ave., Wyoming, Ohio. Anyone wishing to attend can do so, according to Spring Grove Cemetery.
Those who study and are familiar with North Korea raised questions in the wake of Warmbier’s death about the country’s belief in the rule of law, its value for human life and its medical technology.
“I think a lot of it has to do with what charges were filed against him and how powerful is the state really and the rule of law in North Korea,” said Tony Talbott, interim executive director of the University of Dayton Human Rights Center, offering another theory.
“I would assume it’s not – the rule of law is not very powerful. So there’s probably a wide range of potential treatment based on what prison you go to, what warden you have, what guards are with you. What secret police – or military police – is interrogating you and talking to you,” he added.
“I doubt it’s very bureaucratic and set in guidelines, standards, procedures, etc. I’m sure there’s a wide variation there,” Talbott said.
North Korea’s lagging medical system may have made it impossible for Warmbier to receive proper care, said Former Rep. Tony Hall, who has visited the country several times and worked to help secure Fowle’s release.
“If you get sick there, you’re in trouble,” he said. “They just don’t have the medical facilities to take care of him.”
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