WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 (UPI) — Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student detained in North Korea, may not have had the faintest idea that he would be placed under arrest as he prepared to leave Sunan International Airport.
Warmbier, who traveled to North Korea on a five-day trip, was reaching the end of his tour on Jan. 2, when North Korean airport officials quietly took him to a room for questioning, The Washington Post reported Monday.
The 21-year-old American, described as an “intellectual risk-taker,” did not return, much to his group’s surprise. They were later informed that he had been taken to a hospital.
The group was forced to fly home without Warmbier and kept the arrest confidential. Weeks later, on Jan. 22, North Korea’s state-controlled media outlet KCNA announced he had been arrested for “hostile acts.”
Neither Warmbier’s family nor the University of Virginia have made public comments, but Gareth Johnson, chief executive of Pioneer Tours, the tour operator, said he stayed behind to investigate.
According to Pioneer Tours, “It was during this time that it was discovered that there had been an incident…Gareth remained in Pyongyang for a few days, and when it became apparent that nothing would be achieved in country, he returned to China.”
Johnson also confirmed to the Post that Warmbier could have caused an incident at Pyongyang’s Yanggakdo International Hotel that the traveler did not tell others about.
While North Korea has been taking greater liberties to woo foreign tourists and is scheduled to host an annual marathon in Pyongyang, there is no guarantee of the safety of U.S. citizens traveling to Pyongyang, according to the State Department.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, described the arrest as another example of North Korea’s “political hostage-taking,” TIME reported.
“When North Korea gets into a diplomatic dispute with the U.S. government, they like to grab any American they can find and use them as bargaining chips,” he said.