“I beg that you see how I am only human,” Otto Warmbier pleaded tearfully at his February 2016 show trial in Pyongyang. The University of Virginia honor student sat in judgment beneath gold-framed portraits of the Kim family, tugging occasionally at the fratty summer jacket he wore over his parti-colored shirt. Before him: a scrum of cameras and a horseshoe of dour goons scribbling in notebooks. The courtroom itself—its dimensions were simply wrong. Too tall, too narrow, why’s there a fern in the corner. Dreamlike, in the eeriest way.
“I have made the worst mistake of my life,” Otto admitted. Two months earlier, he’d ventured into North Korea as part of a five-day package with a China-based outfit called Young Pioneer Tours. He and some other Westerners did what was apparently common on these trips: They imbibed a few cocktails, they snapped a few outré photos in front of statues of mass murderers. As they were boarding their plane out of the country, however, Otto was quietly apprehended. He was accused of committing “a hostile act against the state.” Eventually, Otto was arraigned on charges of working secretly for the U.S. government and attempting to “[bring] down the foundation of [North Korea’s] single-minded unity.” How he supposedly went about this was by stealing a propaganda poster from a forbidden floor of the hotel where his group was staying. For evidence, the North Korean government provided ostensible surveillance footage showing … a silhouetted humanoid … lifting up a sign? And leaning it against a wall?