The question of what exactly happened to Otto Warmbier in North Korea will, sadly, probably never be answered.

Warmbier died mere days after being evacuated in a coma from the DPRK on “humanitarian” reasons, with US medical care discovering the 22-year-old had suffered a severe neurological injury, and had effectively been unconscious for as long as a year.

Coronial investigators in the United States had received Warmbier’s body and were expecting to conduct an autopsy on him, but balked at the last minute when they revealed the internal post-mortem would not go ahead, after his family urged the coroner to not go ahead with it.

On paper, this seems like a strange decision; after well over a year in North Korean-captivity, definitive answers might have provided some sense of closure to the family.

But in reality, Warmbier had been unconscious for so long that any autopsy was unlikely to answer any questions as to what exactly happened to him.

Werner Spitz, a forensic pathologist with a string of high-profile cases in his resume (including the likes of JFK, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Jon-Benet Ramsey, for example), asserted that the amount of information that a potential autopsy could reveal would be extremely limited in Warmbier’s case.

“After a year of this fellow being unconscious, it is a futile effort. He essentially died a year ago. But being on life support maintaining him artificially there are a lot of things that will not show any longer.”

In essence, any cuts, bruises, or abrasions that might point to physical abuse would have healed by now. Any bone breaks or damage to internal organs suffered might have left scars, but after a year’s worth of healing – supported by life support – it would be next-to-impossible to tell exactly when the initial injuries occurred.

An autopsy may have been useful in examining Warmbier’s brain for signs of anoxia – restricting the supply of oxygen to the brain. Spitz states that, in this case, an autopsy might have been useful, but it still would not provide a definitive explanation.

“Certain areas of the brain are more susceptible to oxygen deprivation than others. When those areas are affected, that tells you a lot about what happened in the past. And since he was conscious and well when he went there, and shortly he became unconscious, that all adds up together not necessarily in their favour over there.”

The problem here being that for any definite answer to be drawn, investigators would have to be in possession of medical history and documented history of treatment from North Korea itself, which is (obviously) not very forthcoming. In cases of anoxia, likely causes range from drug overdoses to strangulation or asphyxiation.

But without cooperation from the DPRK, it is – tragically – a case that will simply never be fully understood.

Warmbier was initially arrested in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years hard labour for, allegedly, stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel while on a sponsored trip.

His family has not commented publicly on the post-mortem investigation.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald.

Photo: Twitter.