Did Pyongyang poison a U.S. prisoner with a biological warfare agent?
By Nate Thayer
June 16, 2017
On March 16, 2016, 21 year-old college student Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for filching a propaganda poster from his hotel in North Korea. After 18 months, convicted of being a “war criminal”, Warmbier left North Korea Tuesday comatose, on a stretcher, and, according to North Korea, a victim of botulism poisoning.
In Pyongyang Tuesday, Warmbier boarded one of a handful of specially equipped aircraft, contracted by the U.S. Department of State Office of Operational Medicine, configured to handle the most extreme contagious disease threats in the world.
On June 13, a specially equipped Gulfstream 3 airplane owned by Phoenix Air, an obscure government contractor in Georgia, flew chief U.S. North Korean envoy Joseph Y. Yun into Pyongyang, picked up Warmbier, flew them via a military base in Japan and Anchorage, Alaska, to Cincinnati, Ohio where Warmbier was met by ambulance, carried off the airplane unable to walk, and taken to Cincinnati Regional Medical Center.
The Phoenix Air # NI63PA then proceeded on to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., dropped off Ambassador Yun and the aircraft returned home to its headquarters at a rural Georgia airstrip.
The Gulfstream 3 that flew Warmbier from Pyongyang is modified with an Aeromedical Biological Containment System (ABCS) that allows caregivers to treat patients in flight without infectious germs escaping. It was created by engineers from the Centers for Disease Control, Department of Defense, and Phoenix Air Group between 2007 and 2010 after the SARS epidemic, with the CDC paying Phoenix Air $15 million between 2005 and 2011 to modify it’s Gulfstream jets to be ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.
While University of Cincinnati Medical Center doctors say that Warmbier is unlikely a victim of botulism, as contended by the North Korean government, the claim was alarming enough for the U.S. to contract one of the most sophisticated medical evacuation aircraft in the world, equipped with contagious disease isolation units, to deploy and retrieve him from Pyongyang.
Warmier’s family said they were informed by U.S. officials last week that North Korea said their son became ill with botulism after his March trial and, for the first time, were told their son had been in a coma for the last 15 months.
“Even if you believe the North Korean explanation of botulism—and we don’t—there is no excuse for the aggressive way North Korea has treated our son,” said Fred Warmbier, Otto Warmbier’s father, Thursday. “What did I say to my son? I hugged him, and I told him I missed him. We have been brutalized for the last 18 months with no information, misinformation. We are proud of the fact that our family is basically positive, happy people. And we are going to stay that way.”
“The question is: could the past administration have done more? The facts speak for themselves….” Warmbier added.
U.S officials were concerned enough about North Korea’s claim Otto Warmbier had been infected with botulism that they dispatched their top North Korean envoy on the highly specialized airplane medically specially equipped for contagious disease and used to pick up US Ebola victims in West Africa in 2015.
Phoenix Air Vice President and COO Dent Thompson said in an interview Thursday that his was “the largest company you’ve never heard of.”
Thompson said he could “not confirm or deny” Phoenix air evacuated Warmbier from North Korea, but added “our company is contracted by the U.S. Department of State and the U.S department of Defence. The U.S. Department of State Office of Operational Medicine contracted us. They are the one’s we were working for. As a contractor, we cannot confirm or deny our missions. I will confirm we have four Gulfstream airplanes highly modified for contagious diseases.”
One of those planes, A Gulfstream 3 with tail number NI63PA landed in North Korea with Ambassador Yun on Monday June 12 and retrieved Otto Warmbier, two U.S. government officials confirmed in interviews Thursday and Friday.
Phoenix Air is the primary air transport for U.S. and foreign governments for people exposed to contagious diseases and since 2015 has transported “more than 40” people, including Americans, infected with the Ebola virus from West Africa to Europe and the U.S. in coordination with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, said Thompson.
“Our aircraft all have very senior medical teams, certified doctors and nurses who must have a minimum of 5 years in an ER or ICU setting. We always have an advanced life support certified team on board,” said Dent Thompson in a Thursday interview.
While Thompson said he could not publicly comment on the North Korean mission “the flight plan of our aircraft is a matter of public record.”
The flight plan of Phoenix Air Gulfstream 3 #NI63PA shows it departed Cartersville, Georgia at 11:37 in the morning of June 10 and arrived at 1:00 PM at Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International airport, departing 43 minutes later destined for Great Falls, Montana. After a brief stopover in Montana it proceeded to Anchorage, Alaska for refueling and continued to a Japan Air Self-Defense Force base which houses F-15 Eagle fighter jets, the Japanese Air Force One government aircraft and a number of smaller emergency response aircraft and helicopters, located next to the New Chitose Airport in Saporro, northern Japan and is tasked with monitoring Japan’s maritime borders with Russia.
There are no flight plans available between its arrival in Japan on June 10 and June 13 when it departed, via a refueling stopover in Alaska, for Cincinnati, where Otto Warmbier was removed from the aircraft, unable to walk and carried to an ambulance. One hour and 11 minutes after delivering Warmbier in Cincinnati, Ambassador Yun and his small entourage were delivered to Washington Dulles airport—mission accomplished.
The Gulfstream then proceeded to rural Cartersville, Georgia, where it landed at 0215 hours in the morning on June 14th—four days after the aircraft had left.
The itinerary meshes seamlessly with the secret trip of U.S. top North Korean envoy Joseph Yun’s visit to North Korea.
Phoenix Air, which operates the only three cargo-door commercial Gulfstream jets in the world, has customized aircraft to move patients by air ambulance globally in an airborne intensive care unit to hospital anywhere in the world.
Dent Thompson’s brother, Mark Thompson, a helicopter pilot warrant officer in the Vietnam war, founded Phoenix Air in the 1970s. Dent Thompson left his job as a Walt Disney World writer in 1984 to become Chief Operating Officer of the aviation services company.
“My degree is in journalism,” he said in the Thursday interview.
Phoenix Air has had at least 15 contracts with U.S. and foreign governments, including the U.S. Department of Defense, State Department, Interior Department, Department of Energy, NASA and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and has “about 50” aircraft, including Learjets, Gulfstreams and Embraer 120s, Thompson said.
But why did the U.S. government think it necessary to bring in a highly sophisticated aircraft equipped for contagious disease patients to North Korea?
North Korea maintains the largest secret biological warfare program in the world, including botulism as a weapon of mass destruction.
North Korea has at least three Biological Warfare production facilities and seven Biological Warfare research centers: the No. 25 Factory in Chŏngju; the Central Biological Weapons Research Institute in Pyongyang; and a plant in the City of Munchŏn, Kangwŏn Province, according to a 2009 report by the International Crisis Group based on classified South Korean government documents.
“The most likely agents for weaponisation are Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Yersinia pestis (plague), Vibrio cholerae (cholera), and botulinum toxin,” reads the report. “Research and development into the “…decontamination of people, equipment, clothing, and water against nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons” is conducted by the No. 398 Institute (Research Center No. 398).”
In North Korea, the state owned companies Maram Materials Corporation and Chiha-ri Chemical Corporation are said to produce and research biological warfare agents.
“North Korea has pursued research and development related to biological warfare capabilities for the last 30 years. North Korean resources, including a bio-technology infrastructure, are sufficient to support production of limited quantities of infectious biological warfare agents, toxins, and possibly crude biological weapons. North Korea has a wide variety of means available for military delivery of biological warfare agents,” according to a 1996 report by the U.S. Secretary of Defence “Proliferation: Threat and Response.”
In February of this year, North Korean government assassins wiped VX Sarin toxins on the face of Kim Jong Nam, the brother of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at Kuala Lumpor, Malaysia airport, while he waited to board a flight to Macau in the airport terminal on February 13, 2017. The brother and potential rival of the North Korean leader “felt like someone grabbed or held his face from behind,” according to Selangor, Malaysia State Criminal Investigations Department Chief Fadzil Ahmat.
Kim Yong Nam died en route to hospital. On Feb. 24, Malaysia said the toxin was VX, a militarized chemical weapon that causes death by asphyxiation in 20 minutes. Days later, there was an attempted break-in at the mortuary that held Kim’s body. North Korea had used a chemical and biological warfare weapon of mass destruction in an international airport to kill the brother of the leader of North Korea.
This emphasized the question: Can any country negotiate with a regime that kills its own family members over the arrest and torture of the family members of foreigners who are deemed “war criminals” for stealing propaganda art from a tourist hotel?
On February 12, the day before the assassination, Pyongyang launched a ballistic missile designed to reach the United States with nuclear or chemical and biological equipped warheads.
North Korean Bio Warfare Capability
“South Korean and US intelligence estimate that North Korea could produce one ton of biological agents annually,” wrote Joseph Bermudez, a leading expert on North Korean military capabilities. “Former director of the Central Intelligence Agency William Webster pointed out: “Equipment, materials and expertise needed to produce biological warfare agents all have legitimate uses in the pharmaceutical and medical industries. With currently available technology biological warfare agents can be produced at such a rate that inventories are no longer necessary. Actually, any nation with a modestly developed pharmaceutical industry can produce biological warfare agents if it chooses.”
“Biological agents currently reported to be in the KPA (Korean People’s Army) inventory include, but are not necessarily limited to anthrax (bacillus anthracis), botulism (clostridium botulinum), cholera (vibrio cholerae 01), haemorrhagic fever (probably the Korean strain), plague (yersinia pestis), smallpox (variola) typhoid (salmonella typhi) and yellow fever.”
A May 1994 report by the Defence Intelligence Agency says Russian smallpox stocks were given to Iraq and North Korea during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Blood samples from KPA defectors that showed evidence of fresh smallpox immunisations appear to confirm this as these would be unnecessary if North Korea was not producing smallpox weapons,” writes Bermudez.
In 2010, an Israeli researcher wrote that Syria has kept Smallpox specimens since 1972, and obtained “genetically engineered versions from North Korea in 2006.”
In 2008, North Korea commercially introduced Tetrodocain “…a priceless medicine with miraculous properties” by the Chosen Taehung Trading Corporation. The primary ingredient of Tetrodocain is tetrodotoxin, a potent neurotoxin with no known antidote, extracted from puffer fish. In 2010 North Korea announced the completion of a factory to manufacture the product, according to Bermudez.
In 2011, the South Korean Ministry of Defence released a report “Research on Verification Measures for North Korea’s Biological Weapons” which said North Korea has equipped its field artillery, rocket launcher and mortar units with biological weapons. “The report assessed that anthrax, botulinum and smallpox are most likely to be weaponised, wrote Bermudez.
In 2013, China published a list of dual-use products and technologies banned from export to North Korea, including products that could weaponize the Ebola virus.
When North Korea asserted to U.S. diplomats this month that Otto Warmbier had been infected with botulism, this raised legitimate concerns and a worst case scenario contingency plan had to be deployed.
In the winter of 1951-1952, North Korea’s health minister travelled to Shenyang, China to obtain the plague bacilli that they later injected into two North Korean criminals who had been sentenced to death. Their tissue samples were then given to international investigators as part of a scheme to prove the U.S. used biological weapons in the Korean War.
After being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor on March 16, 2016, Warnier was led out of the court unable to walk, North Korean video showed.
He had not been seen or heard from in the 15 months since until this week.
Last month the United States and North Korea held secret meetings in May in Oslo, Norway where U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Joseph Y. Yun hammered out an agreement with his North Korean counterpart to allow humanitarian visits to the four Americans currently imprisoned in North Korea.
This presented a dilemma because North Korea knew Wambier had been in a coma since his conviction in March 2016, according to his family and press reports citing U.S. officials.
Immediately after the Oslo agreement, Swedish Ambassador to Pyongyang Torkel Stiernlöf visited the 4 U.S. prisoners—or at least three of them. It is unclear whether the Swedish ambassador was allowed to see the comatose Warmbier, but North Korean officials told him that Warmbier had contracted Botulism and fell into a coma shortly after North Korean doctors gave him “sleeping pills” in March 2016.
On June 6, according to the Washington Post, North Korea urgently requested to meet with U.S diplomat Yun in New York and told him about about Warmbier’s medical condition.
Within days, the U.S government dispatched officials to North Korea and demanded the return of the gravely ill prisoner, Otto Warmbier.
U.S. diplomats said that president Donald Trump had approved the full latitude of any options to be used to secure the release of Mr. Warmbier.
On Monday, Yun and two physicians flew to Pyongyang on the Phoenix Air biological warfare equipped aircraft and visited Warmbier. Yun demanded his release and North Korea complied on Tuesday, according to the State Department.
In December 2015, the University of Virginia college student snuck up a stairwell and stole a propaganda poster taped to a wall in a section of his hotel reserved for employees.
But instead of what the rest of the world would have viewed as a college prank, Warmbier was arrested and charged with “subversion under Article 60 of North Korea’s criminal code pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward, in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”
Warnier was reduced to a broken man shortly after he was arrested on December 29, 2015 when he tried to depart Pyongyang with his posters on his tour group, and his world rapidly spiraled into the twilight zone.
He was paraded in front of a choreographed propaganda “press conference” and confessed to his sins in tears.
“I understand the severity of my crime. I am very worried my family may be harmed by the United States military machine. I beg for any kind of public protection for my family. I never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against tourism,” Warmier said in video released February 29, 2016 by the North Korea. “I beg for forgiveness so I can return home to my family. My Lord, if you are there, please…”
Two weeks later, on March 16, 2016, Warmier told a North Korean court he stole the poster from a hotel wall because he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he delivered the propaganda poster to and on the instructions of his rural Ohio Methodist church. Warnier told the court his church promised to give his mother $200,000 to a charity of her choice if he was arrested for his counter revolutionary crimes. He also testified he was manipulated by a University of Virginia fraternity “secret society” called “Z” which he confessed was connected to the CIA.
Other Americans held prisoner in North Korea have no doubt what kind of duress Warmbier was under. “The North Korean government controlled everything that happened to me,” said Jeffrey Fowle, who was held by North Korea in 2014 after leaving a bible behind a toilet in a rest room while visiting the country as a tourist. “I saw a North Korean doctor twice. It was the same woman doctor. I was a bit concerned when they put iodine in my nose. I was more concerned when they gave me a chest x-ray and my driver, my interpreter, my guard, and the doctor were all in the room.”
Fowle said when he was released in November 2014 he was brought to a hotel in Pyongyang and told “The First secretary of the Party has recommended you be released, and then the U.S. doctor came out.”
The “doctor” was “over six feet tall, bearded, a U.S. military special forces doctor in a t-shirt. Another Korean-American was with him, Mr. Jun. He came from behind me and said ‘Watch what you say! Let’s go!’” and they departed for the airport where a U.S. government 737 was waiting on the tarmac. The military modified airplane “was separated into three sections. I was in the first class section where there were 3 to 5 people on computer screens doing who knows what. The second section was all communications equipment and people. The third section was totally off limits.”
“Government military programs, including those of the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the United States have extensively weaponized botulinum toxin,’ according to Larry and Suzanne Lutwick in their book “Beyond Anthrax: The Weaponization of Infectious Disease.” “In violation of the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the Soviet Union and Iraq continued large scale production of Botulinum toxin for offensive warfare purposes….Iran, Syria, and North Korea are believed to be developing or to have developed botulinum toxin as a weapon.”
North Korea has “an estimated 10 to 13 different types of microorganisms (which they) were investigating during the early development process, including anthrax, cholera, plague, smallpox, and yellow fever.”
North Korea has “significant stockpiles of different kinds of chemical and biological warfare agents, all produced in its underground installations and then stored at Maram-dong near Pyongyang and at Anbyon in the southern border province of Kangwon,” according to investigative jopurnalist Bertil Lintner in an article published in Asia Times this year. “ Both facilities consist of mazes of tunnels dug into mountains and cannot be detected from the air.”
The US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) said in an unclassified report in 2007 that “North Korea’s resources include a biotechnical infrastructure that could support the production of various biological warfare agents. DIA believes North Korea has a longstanding chemical weapons stockpile of nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents.”
“The production of Biological Warfare agents begun in the 1980’s. Botulism, the plague, yellow fever, hemmoragic fever, and smallpox were researched and developed around the same time. Of these 9 biological weapons, experts are more confident that North Korea has produced agents for anthrax, botulism, and the plague,” wrote Edward Cody in “Chemical and Biological Warfare.” “Unlike its Chemical Warfare development, biological weapons developments in North Korea have been mostly indigenous, being researched in both civilian and military research institutes.”
The South Korean government says half of North Korea’s long range missiles and 30% of its artillery pieces are capable of firing chemical or biological warheads.
Welcome home, Otto Warmbier.