Imprisoned American Student Leaves North Korea in Coma

Held under inhumane conditions for more than a year on phony charges.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced Tuesday that North Korea released Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate student, who had been serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor since March 2016 for allegedly trying to take a propaganda banner. According to Warmbier’s parents, their son was medically evacuated from North Korea in a coma, which he has reportedly been in for over a year after falling ill to botulism and then being given a sleeping pill. Only this month did U.S. officials learn that Warmbier was in a coma. President Trump then promptly put into motion the process enabling Warmbier’s safe return to his family in Ohio.

“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in a statement. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.” At least three other American citizens remain jailed in North Korea.

“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea,” Otto Warmbier’s parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in commenting on their son’s release. “We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”

Otto Warmbier had been in North Korea for a brief time over New Year’s on a group tour, while on his way to Hong Kong for a financial course he was to take as part of his undergraduate studies. He did not make it to Hong Kong. Instead, he was apprehended on January 2, 2016 at the Pyongyang International Airport on charges of committing a “hostile act” against the state, as he was preparing to leave the country. An armed official at the airport was reported to have dragged Warmbier away.

The young undergraduate honors student was forced the next month, at a staged news conference, to admit to a “very severe and pre-planned crime,” saying that the “aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.”  In March 2016, a North Korean kangaroo court, after a one hour show trial, concluded, according to the state-run North Korean Central News Agency, that Warmbier had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward [the North], in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”

According to some intelligence reports, Warmbier was repeatedly beaten while imprisoned in North Korea.

Thus, nothing more than a New Year’s Eve college prank was elevated to phony charges that Warmbier had committed an act tantamount to trying to overthrow the government.  For over a year, Warmbier was deprived of  his most basic of human rights as the poor student was innocently caught in the cross-hairs of North Korea’s continued acts of provocation against the United States.

The U.S. relies on Sweden to represent its interests in North Korea, since the U.S. has no direct diplomatic relations with North Korea itself. There had been only one reported consular visit with Warmbier from Swedish diplomats in March 2016. Since then, the United States continued to urge that North Korea allow Sweden further consular access to Warmbier, as well as three other American citizens known to be held by North Korea. There was no movement on North Korea’s part until a meeting took place in Oslo, Norway last month between the U.S. State Department special representative for North Korea policy and high-level representatives from the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs that opened the door to Swedish visits with the detainees.

According to a timeline prepared by Fox News, further meetings between U.S. and North Korean officials took place thereafter. With concern mounting over Warmbier’s deteriorating condition since the State Department learned of it in early June, a delegation arrived in Pyongyang on June 12 that included a State Department representative and a medical team.

“The visit was the first time the United States was able to confirm Warmbier’s status after he was sentenced,” Fox News reported. The State Department representative “immediately demanded the North Koreans release Warmbier on humanitarian grounds. Arrangements were made for Warmbier to leave North Korea.” The release occurred on June 13th.   

Former NBA star Dennis Rodman happened to arrive in North Korea for his fifth trip to the rogue state the same day Warmbier left.  However, nothing should be read into this coincidence, given the timeline of theTrump administration’s own prior initiatives leading to the release. Moreover, Rodman himself said in advance that he was not intending to discuss the Americans detained by the regime.

North Korea still has at least three Americans in illegal custody, no doubt enduring horrific conditions in violation of all norms of human decency. It is imperative that the State Department continue its efforts to secure their release. However, it must do so without making the kind of outlandish concessions that the Obama administration made as a matter of course to secure the release of U.S. citizens held by Iran.