American college student Otto Warmbier, convicted by North Korea 16 months ago of “hostile acts” against the state, was freed today and is one his way home.
But Warmbier is in a coma and his parents say he’s been in that condition since March of 2016.
The 22-year-old contracted botulism last year and is in “bad shape,” a source close to the family told CNN. North Korea told a US official that Warmbier slipped into the coma after taking a sleeping pill when he contracted botulism, a senior State Department official told CNN.
“Otto has left North Korea. He is on Medivac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago,” said Fred and Cindy Warmbier in a statement.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korean. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
Warmbier was detained in January 2016 at the airport in Pyongyang while on his way home. His parents say the University of Virginia student had been on a tour of the reclusive country.
North Korean authorities said they had security footage of him trying to steal a banner containing a political slogan that was hanging from the walls of his Pyongyang hotel.
That was used as evidence in his hour-long trial, during which North Korea accused him of committing “hostile acts” against the regime at the urging of a purported member of a church in his home state of Ohio, a secretive university organization and the CIA.
Warmbier was found guilty and sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years hard labor. It was the last time he was seen publicly.
Warmbier was one of four Americans detained in North Korea.
Since last March, the US had been pressing North Korea to let Swedish officials see the four Americans, the senior State Department official told CNN. When the Swedes finally got the okay to visit, the North Koreans immediately asked for a meeting with Joe Yun, the US envoy in New York, when he was told about Otto Warmbier’s condition.
In that meeting about a week ago, Yun was told that Warmbier had contracted botulism a year ago and went into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. US officials then urged those with the ability to persuade Pyongyang to ratchet up the pressure to get him released, said a source, who is familiar with the government’s efforts.
The problem with North Korea’s version of events is that torture is routine for American prisoners and it is far more likely that some sadistic, overzealous North Korean prison guard put Mr. Warmbier into a coma than it is the kid took a sleeping pill and never woke up.
There is absolutely nothing the United States can do to punish North Korea if they are responsible for the young man’s condition. We have zero leverage. There’s nothing we can take away from them. We have no trade, no products to boycott, and they are impervious to international outrage.
We could lodge a protest through the Swedish embassy in Pyongyang and that’s about the extent of what we can do about this outrage. Mr. Warmbier appears to have been a young man who acted foolishly. But he did nothing to deserve the savage treatment he received at the hands of that barbaric regime.