Is This American Bro Going to North Korean Prison Because He Tried to Impress a Glorified Frat?
University of Virginia undergrad Otto Warmbier has been sentenced to fifteen years in a North Korean labor camp after copping to an attempted heist of a DPRK propaganda poster. If this sounds like the kind of thing a college kid would try in order to look cool back at UVA, that’s because he says it was.
You can’t watch the video of Warmbier’s bizarre confession without coming to the conclusion that it was made at least in part under serious duress—he was in the custody of one of the planet’s most heavy-handedly oppressive governments, and presumably trying to avoid an even harsher sentence than the one he received. But beyond deeming himself a “severe criminal” for an attempt at petty theft, Warmbier included an odd detail: that he’d planned to snatch the poster at the behest of the “Z Society,” a secretive social club at UVA that dates back to 1892.
Here’s a brief excerpt from Warmbier’s “confession,” which in full lasted over half an hour:
I will now discuss the Z Society, and its encouragement of my crime.
The Z Society is the most secret organization at the UVA. All members and activities are strictly confidential. I first came to know of the Z Society in September 2013, when I first started at the university. I saw large Z crests painted on all the buildings of the compound. You can see them if you visit the University of Virginia... I was told that they’re from the Z Society, since the society donates millions of dollars to the university. The Z Society has around ten student members currently an after graduation they all go n to become very wealthy, with jobs in politics, business, and religion. Members of the Z Society include former US president Woodrow Wilson and a former head of the CIA. The stated objective of the Z Society is to spread freedom and eliminate tyranny. In order to become members, they must have good grades, and leadership, and most importantly, they must commit a brave act to help with the society’s stated objective. Once again, all members and activities are strictly confidential. It is, well, clear that the Z Society knew of my good grades and leadership. It is also clear that they knew that I would eagerly want to joint eh society in order to solve my family’s desperate financial problems. Because of this the Z Society expected me to commit a brave act to help eliminate tyranny. In order to prove my braveness to the Z Society I committed my crime in the DPR Korea with hopes of joining the Z Society. As you know from the Cold War era example, the CIA has always been leading anti-communism in every place in the world. There is no doubt that the CIA knows of the Z Society’s encouragement of my crime. Lastly, I want to clearly state that I was the political victim of the United States’ consistent hostile policy against the DPR Korea.
To be clear, literally everything Warmbier said before a North Korean kangaroo court should be considered suspect. His “confession” was likely coached, if not dictated to him verbatim by the court itself. But the Z Society element is bizarre. More than bizarre, really, it’s a completely inexplicable detail—how would the DPRK have a working knowledge of an extremely obscure, semi-secret, private social club based only on the campus of a Virginia university? Even most actual UVA students know little about the Z Society, to say nothing of government officials in a tiny, culturally isolated, xenophobic dictatorship on the other side of the planet. Anyone can lob an accusation of CIA collusion—the CIA are easily referenced bogeymen for any enemy of the U.S.—but an undergraduate secret society with only about a dozen members at a time?
The question, then, is this: Did the DPRK feed Warmbier the Z Society story for his staged confession, or did Warmbier bring it up on his own? The latter seems eminently possible. Daring an undergrad to steal a communist propaganda poster is absolutely the sort of thing that would happen at what’s basically a glorified co-ed frat—you can imagine how much someone would love to have that hanging on their college bedroom wall. That leads to another question: Did the Z Society actually put Warmbier up to it? A current “Z” reached by CNN denied the entire thing:
A member of the Z Society at UVA told CNN the organization sought to anonymously recognize students who contributed positively to the university. The source said the group had never had any contact with Warmbier and he’d never been approached to be a member.
The source also dismissed suggestions that the group had any affiliation with the CIA.
“There’s just not even the semblance of a relationship between a group of undergrads who get together to eat hummus and write nice things about people, and the CIA,” the Z Society member said.
Then again, of course they’d deny it. The raison d’etre of any secret society is secrecy—you don’t join one to have fun, you join one in order to be in on the secret and enjoy the lame thrill of excluding the rest of the world from whatever mundane shit you’re doing together.
What little information is public about the Z Society doesn’t flag it as the most obvious CIA cutout at the University of Virginia, were the DPRK just idly googling hypothetical co-conspirators for Warmbier. According to a blurb in UVA Magazine, the group’s ostensible goals are academic:
In addition to its philanthropic efforts, the Z Society hosts numerous honorary dinners and grants academic awards. The Edgar F. Shannon Awards are given to the “best” graduating students from each of the University’s schools. Those so honored have “pursued academic greatness with fervent ardor and keen insight while never forgetting the importance of those priorities aside from school.” An annual Distinguished Faculty Award is also given, based on student nominations.
A university admissions blog says the Z Society’s purpose is “honoring students and faculty who’ve actively contributed to UVa’s student life and diversity is their main objective.”
In 2015, the Society donated $30,000 to a university fund used for faculty hiring:
According to the letter, faculty are an essential part of student development — as effective self-governance cannot be achieved without a strong bond between students and faculty.
“The sentiment of student self-governance is too often flattened out to mean student leadership of flagship organizations, yet here, self-governance is best understood to mean the literal governance of the self — a journey of personal cultivation,” the letter said.
A lot of the group’s campus activities seem to be along the same lines of professorial ass-kissing and the handing out of various hokey awards for excellence. If you’re a North Korean trying to find the most obvious club to say induced an act of CIA-connected hotel vandalism, you’d probably go with the most clandestine club of them all, the “7 Society,” in which membership is only revealed upon death. That group also, notably, boasts among its alumni Frank Wisner, former head of the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s precursor) and later a top official at the CIA itself.
We may never find out exactly what happened in that Pyongyang hotel—or why—unless Warmbier tells us himself upon his eventual return to the United States. One thing we can count on is that the University of Virginia won’t try to get to the bottom of this: When I asked the school whether they would investigate Warmbier’s claims about the Z Society in any capacity, they would not answer, instead only praising the Z Society as a “philanthropic organization.”
A request for comment sent to a Z Society email address provided by the University of Virginia was not immediately returned.