Otto Warmbier, the college student arrested, tried and imprisoned in harsh conditions in North Korea for more than a year for trying to swipe a souvenir from a hotel, has been released but is in a coma, according to multiple sources.
The 22-year-old Warmbier has served just over a year of his 15-year sentence — allegedly for taking down a sign of the late dictator Kim Jong Il while Warmbier was in the country with a tour group. As of Tuesday morning, Warmbier was on his way home to Cincinnati, although other details surrounding the dramatic events were not released.
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family. The Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained. Out of respect for the privacy of Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment on Mr. Warmbier.”
Warmbier’s parents, who have appeared on Fox News Channel in the past to plead for their son’s release, expressed somber gratitude.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told The Washington Post Tuesday morning, after his son had been evacuated from North Korea. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
Warmbier’s exact condition was not known, but his parents said they were told that he had gotten botulism soon after his trial and been given a sleeping pill, from which he never woke up. State Department officials were unable to confirm this.
Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who has worked for Warmbier’s release with his Center for Global Engagement, said Warmbier has been in a coma for more than a year.
“Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States,” Richardson said in a statement obtained by Fox News. “We received a call from Cindy and Fred Warmbier early today to update us on Otto’s condition. In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma.”
Warmbier was detained on Jan. 2, 2016, at Pyongyang International Airport, while visiting the country as a tourist with Young Pioneer Tour. He was charged with stealing the sign from a staff-only floor in the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang and committing “crimes against the state.” He was given a one-hour trial in March 2016, when the government presented fingerprints, CCTV footage and pictures of a political banner to make its case against the American student.
“I beg that you see how I am only human,” Warmbier said at his trial. “And how I have made the biggest mistake of my life.”
Despite his pleas, the college student was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In a post-trial video released to the world, Warmbier, under obvious duress, praised his captors for his treatment and for handling of the case “fair and square.”
Warmbier’s release leaves three U.S. citizens currently known to be held in North Korea: accounting professor Kim Sang Duk, businessman Kim Dong Chul and Kim Hak-Song, who worked at Pyongyang University.
In the past, North Korea has generally quickly released any American citizens it detained – waiting at most for a U.S. official or statesman to come and to personally bail out detainees. But that appears to be changing.
Early in the dictatorship of Kim Jong Un, North Korea called on its people to rally behind him and protect him as “human shields.” But with the U.S. leading a growing international coalition determined to counter North Korea’s nuclear and missile testing as well as threats against neightbors and Western countries, the Americans could be bargaining chips at best and human shields at worst, according to experts.
Warmbier’s release comes amid simmering tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, largely owing to Pyongyang’s continued testing of nuclear-capable missiles.
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman, a self-described friend of Kim Jong Un, recently landed in North Korea on a non-U.S.-sanctioned mission he said was aimed at promoting sports in the isolated nation.