Yellow Ribbon Project

North Korea Returns Captive American College Student in a Coma

American student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang, North Korea, on March 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin)

North Korea has returned one of its American prisoners — a University of Virginia student sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing a regime propaganda sign who reportedly fell into a coma shortly after his sentence began.

“At the direction of the president, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. 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,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement this morning.

“Out of respect for the privacy of Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment on Mr. Warmbier,” he added.

At a State Department briefing later in the day, press secretary Heather Nauert said the government is “pleased” to have Otto Warmbier back in the United States. “What an incredible day that one of our fellow American citizens who’s been detained in North Korea for more than a year — as we had difficulty, as you all are very well aware, in reaching him,” she said.

“We had to go through the government of Sweden, our protected power, in order to get any kind of information. And even then, it was extremely rare,” she added. “So, we are grateful today that he is released and he is on his way back to the United States. I know and appreciate you all have a lot of questions about how all of this developed. Unfortunately, today, I’m not going to be able to answer all of that for you, even though some information was put out. I’m just not going to be able to go that far in it today.”

The 22-year-old’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said in a statement that their son was taken out of North Korea on a Medevac. “Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” they said. “We learned of this only one week ago. We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”

University of Virginia president Teresa A. Sullivan said in a statement that while the university 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 last 17 months have been an extremely difficult and emotionally trying time for the Warmbier family,” Sullivan added. “The UVA 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 State Department said Dennis Rodman, who just flew to Pyongyang to meet with his friend Kim Jong-un, did not have anything to Warmbier’s release. Rodman told reporters that helping Americans detained by North Korea is “not my purpose right now.”

Warmbier, who the North Koreans claim contracted botulism and took a sleeping pill, was being taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Nauert said she “can’t comment anything on his health,” citing State Department guidelines.

“We have been extremely concerned about his situation all along, as we are of any American citizen who has been detained in any part of the world. This is one of the highest priorities — you all know this — one of the highest priorities of the State Department is the safety, welfare, and well-being of our U.S. citizens and of — who are abroad,” she said. “So, we continue to try to monitor how they are doing to the best that we can.”

Warmbier, who visited as part of a tour group, was seized by North Korean officials on Jan. 2, 2016, before his flight was supposed to take off from Pyongyang. He was paraded before cameras the next month for a tearful “confession,” admitting he took down a banner that was hanging in the hall of his hotel. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said.

North Korea claimed the student took the poster as a “hostile act” to disturb DPRK unity at the behest of the CIA, a college group and a church in his home state of Ohio.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said his “first priority will be continuing to support Otto, his parents and family, whose strength and love of family inspire me every time I speak with them.”

“North Korea’s despicable actions in detaining and holding Otto were unacceptable and must be condemned,” he said.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) called Warmbier’s detention “unnecessary and appalling.”

“For North Korea to imprison Otto with no notification or consular access for more than a year is the utmost example of its complete failure to recognize fundamental human rights and dignity,” Portman said. “We still have three Americans who are being held unjustly by North Korea. They should be released immediately.”