SEOUL, June 19 (UPI) -- Organizers held a pair of commemorative events on Wednesday to mark the second anniversary of the death of Otto Warmbier, the American student who was imprisoned in North Korea for 17 months before being released in a vegetative state and dying days later.
Across the street from the U.S. Embassy in downtown Seoul, a small number of representatives from human rights and civic organizations staged a candlelight vigil and delivered speeches memorializing Warmbier, who was 22 when he died.
One of the event's organizers, Jung Min-suh, head the Global Human Rights Network, said they wanted to use the occasion to draw attention to North Korea's ongoing human rights violations and to call on the United States and South Korea to apply more pressure to the totalitarian state.
"North Korea is the worst nation in the world for human rights," Jung said. "Otto Warmbier took a poster, that's all. He didn't deserve to be beaten and tortured and executed for it."
Warmbier, a college student on a group tour to North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after allegedly stealing a propaganda poster in January 2016.
In June 2017, North Korea released him, telling U.S. officials that he that had fallen into a coma shortly after his sentencing from a bout of botulism and an adverse reaction to a sleeping pill.
The University of Virginia student was medically evacuated to the United States on June 13, 2017, and died six days later, never having regained consciousness. An Ohio coroner determined the cause of death was lack of oxygen and blood to the brain. Warmbier's parents said he had been "brutalized and terrorized" by the North Korean regime.
Jung said South Korea and the United States have continued to overlook human rights in their eagerness to strike a deal with North Korea over the country's nuclear weapons programs.
"Our government keeps silent over human rights with North Korea," he said. "They attach priority to the sentiments of the North Korean leaders. Their priority should be the North Korean people."
One attendee, Lee Jae-chun, former South Korean ambassador to Russia and the European Union, said it was his "duty" to remember Warmbier.
"Otto Warmbier's case is the symbol of North Korean human rights issues," he said. "There are millions of North Koreans who are not free. Kim Jong Un should be held accountable."
Visitors laid flowers in front of a photograph of Warmbier and touched a memento of his: a necktie, which had been given by Warmbier's parents to North Korean defector Ji Seong-ho, the double amputee who was a guest at U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address in 2018.
Nearby, in a large public square, another group comprised mainly of conservative political activists also held an event to commemorate the anniversary of Warmbier's death. A few dozen visitors listened to speeches and music and watched video clips of Warmbier delivering the salutatorian address at his high school graduation in 2013.
Many waved American flags alongside South Korean ones, and some held signs criticizing China and Huawei, in a show of solidarity with the United States' ban on the technology giant.
"Otto Warmbier was killed by the dictator Kim Jong Un and I'm very sorry for his death," said Kang Koon-yeol, a 72-year-old pastor who played harmonica as part of a musical tribute.
"We can't trust Kim Jong Un," he said. "He has no intention to give up his nuclear weapons."
While nuclear negotiations have been at an impasse with North Korea since a failed summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam, in February, Trump has continued to highlight his personal relationship with Kim, reporting last week that he had received a "beautiful" and "very warm" letter from the North Korean leader.
At the February summit, Trump said that he believed Kim wasn't aware of Warmbier's treatment in captivity.
"Some really bad things happened to Otto," Trump said. "But Kim tells me that he didn't know about it and I will take him at his word."
Shortly afterward, Warmbier's parents fired back, saying that "Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto... No excuse or lavish praise can change that."
Last month, Otto's mother, Cindy Warmbier, called North Korea "a cancer on this earth," and expressed concern that the United States was going to ease the sanctions pressure on Pyongyang.
"Unless we keep the pressure on North Korea, they are not going to change," she said at a Washington D.C. event on North Korean abductions.
While there have been some recent signs that the communications channels may be reopening between Washington and Pyongyang, Cindy Warmbier called diplomacy with North Korea a "charade."
"How can you have diplomacy with someone who never tells the truth?" she said. "[Kim] lies, he lies, he lies all for himself."