North Korea releases Otto Warmbier

U.Va. student freed after 17 months of imprisonment

nsottowarmbiercourtesyreuters

During his trial, Warmbier confessed to stealing a political banner and North Korea's highest court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for subversion.

© KYODO Kyodo / Reuters | X01481

University student Otto Warmbier has been released from North Korea, but is believed to be in a coma.

Warmbier’s parents said in a statement Tuesday that their son has been in a comatose state since March 2016, which they found out about one week ago. He was medically evacuated from the isolated country on a Medivac flight. They told the Washington Post that they were told their son developed botulism — a dangerous type of food poisoning — and did not wake up from a sleeping pill that he took.

“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 in a statement. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family.”

Tillerson did not comment on Warmbier’s medical condition.

The Associated Press first reported Warmbier’s release Tuesday morning.

University President Teresa Sullivan provided the University community with the following statement about Warmbier’s release.

“While the entire University of Virginia community is relieved to learn of Otto’s release from North Korea, we are deeply concerned and saddened to learn from his family that he is in a coma,” the statement read. “The last 17 months have been an extremely difficult and emotionally trying time for the Warmbier family. The U.Va. family will continue to keep the Warmbiers in our thoughts and prayers as Otto returns to the United States and his home, where he will receive the care and support of those who love him.”

The University also released a message from Cindy and Fred Warmbier on Tuesday evening.

“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea,” they said. “We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”

Warmbier was detained in North Korea on Jan. 2, 2016, as he prepared to leave a five-day tour of the country. He was accused of attempting to steal a political banner from a staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang — a grave crime in a country where the ruling family is considered sacrosanct.

He had traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, which is a tourism company that offers “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”

In February 2016, Warmbier confessed to trying to take the banner, and the North Korean Supreme Court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor in March of the same year.

There were few updates to Warmbier’s case following the sentencing, although after he passed one year of imprisonment, his parents began to express their frustration with the slow process of getting their son released in numerous interviews this past spring.

At the time of his arrest, Warmbier was an Echols scholar and a member of Theta Chi Fraternity. He was also a third-year Commerce student and would have graduated this past spring. Several of his friends and classmates passed out #FreeOtto stickers at Final Exercises in May.

Sullivan and Commerce Dean Carl Zeithaml also referred to Warmbier in their speeches at Final Exercises.

In his statement Tuesday, Tillerson said the State Department “continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained.” He also said the department had no further comment on Warmbier’s case out of respect for him and his family’s privacy.

Warmbier’s release overlapped with former NBA player Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea.

Rodman, who has previously traveled to North Korea, tweeted early Tuesday morning that he was on a “mission,” although it was initially unclear if his mission involved securing the release of American detainees. As a former contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice,” Rodman is acquainted with President Donald Trump.

The State Department denied Rodman’s involvement in Warmbier’s release on Tuesday. 

This is a developing story and will be updated as more details become available. 

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