Kenneth Bae, the US citizen detained by North Korea for two years, says he believes it is possible the late Otto Warmbier could have been tortured during his captivity in the communist country.
In an interview Wednesday with CNN in Seoul, Bae said he was threatened a few times during his 735 days in a North Korean prison but never tortured.
Warmbier’s parents said they believe their son was subjected to “awful, torturous mistreatment” by the North Korean regime.
Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student, died Monday in Cincinnati, less than a week after his release from North Korea. He could not speak or move voluntarily when he returned, and his doctors said he suffered extensive brain damage.
Asked whether Bae thinks Warmbier was physically mistreated given the threats he received in captivity, Bae said it is possible the college student was “threatened” or that he was “physically tortured or attacked.”
“It didn’t happen to me,” Bae said. “There’s no way for me to know that for sure.”
Authorities used a particularly ominous threat with prisoners, Bae said: “If you don’t follow there will be something worse that will happen to you.”
“So I do believe that something like that could have happened to other detainees at this point because of what has happened to Otto. I am worried about other detainees, what they go through,” he said.
Warmbier visited North Korea in January 2016 on a sightseeing tour. He was arrested for allegedly stealing a political sign from a restricted area and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
The cause of Warmbier’s death is not known, and his family objected to an autopsy, a request the Hamilton County Coroner’s Office in Ohio honored.
Last week, his treating physicians in Cincinnati said he suffered from unresponsive wakefulness, a condition also known as persistent vegetative state.
In a news conference before Warmbier’s death, they said they could not speculate on the cause of his condition.
But they cast doubt on North Korea’s assertion he fell into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill.
Bae was the longest-held U.S. citizen in North Korea since the Korean War — first detained in 2012 and released two years later. In 2013, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for committing unspecified “hostile acts” in the country.
Warmbier was “probably terrified” during his ordeal, Bae said.
The Trump administration worked to secure Warmbier’s return to the United States. Three Americans remain detained in North Korea.
Bae said he hopes President Donald Trump will “take a stand with the North Korean government,” demand the release of all detainees and deal with “human rights violations.”
“Every life is very important, Otto Warmbier’s life is very important, (so are) all the detainees and 24 million people living under such a terrible state right now,” he said.