Portman on North Korea: “We Can’t Be Naive About What They Did to Otto”

February 28, 2019 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) delivered remarks on the Senate floor today to honor the life of Ohio native Otto Warmbier and to remind everyone of  the North Korean regime’s unnecessary detainment and terrible mistreatment of Warmbier.

In his speech, Portman said, “We can’t be naive about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime…”

Transcript can be found below and a video can be found here.


“In the context of the ongoing negotiations with North Korea, there has been a lot of discussion today in the media about Otto Warmbier. Otto Warmbier was a young man from my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. This is an emotional issue for me because through the process of trying to bring Otto home I got to know his family very well. 

“He was a young man with a lot of promise. He was 22 years old. A college student at the University of Virginia. He had gone as a tourist to North Korea, and he was pulled out of the line at the airport. Here he was, a kind-hearted, college kid who found himself a prisoner in North Korea. He was there for about 18 months. His detainment and his sentence were appalling and unacceptable by any standards. At some point soon after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, from what we know, Otto suffered a severe brain injury. What happened? We may never know the details. But we do know one thing and that was he was severely mistreated. 

“Who did the North Korean government tell about the fact that he had this brain damage? No one. Unbelievably for the next 15 months of his life they kept this a secret. They denied him access to the best medical care he deserved, which, of course, we would have provided. I was in communication with the North Korean government during this time, through their offices at the United Nations in New York. They didn't even tell us about the terrible mistreatment that he had suffered and the condition he was in. They refused repeated requests for consular access that normally would have been provided to someone who’s been detained, regardless of their health situation. This included denying requests from me and others here in this body, but also from the Obama administration, the Trump administration, the Red Cross, also from the government of Sweden, which typically acts for us in North Korea as a consulate service. 

“I say that because while I support engagement with North Korea -- in fact my experience with Otto Warmbier makes me even more convinced that we need to be in communication because we had no good lines of communication. I support the ongoing talks with North Korea, specifically about denuclearization. But I want to make clear that we can never forget about Otto. His treatment at the hands of his captors was unforgivable and it tells us a lot about the nature of this regime. 

“We can’t be naive about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime that would do this to an American citizen, and it's not just about Otto and other visitors, it's about how the people in North Korea are treated. Many of them also have had their human rights violated. No one should have to go through what the Warmbier family has gone through. They have been incredibly strong through this whole ordeal. I’ve watched them channel their grief into something constructive, exposing some of the human rights abuses in North Korea. 

“Throughout this ordeal, I have stood with Fred and Cindy and their entire family, and I will continue to do so. But I also want to say today as we discuss these broader issues with North Korea, let’s keep Otto Warmbier at the front of our minds. Let’s be sure that he is high on our agenda and in our consciousness as we deal with North Korea and again understanding, because of our experience with Otto, the brutal nature of this regime.”