Otto Warmbier, Detained American, Is Evacuated From North Korea in a Coma

June 14, 2017



WASHINGTON — Otto F. Warmbier was a University of Virginia honors student with a passion for travel when he signed up for a five-day tour of North Korea with a Chinese company that advertised “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”

He was detained at the Pyongyang airport as he tried to leave in January 2016, charged with an unspecified “hostile act” against the reclusive government. Within two months, he was convicted after a one-hour trial of trying to steal a propaganda poster. Mr. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. A video captured him being led away to prison, dazed, stumbling and flanked by two North Korean guards.

Fifteen months later, Mr. Warmbier — gravely ill and in a coma — was medically evacuated from North Korea on Tuesday and on his way to his parents’ home in Cincinnati. His release followed secret negotiations between American officials and the government in Pyongyang that unfolded as tensions escalated over North Korea’s nuclear program.

Little is known about Mr. Warmbier’s ordeal in North Korea, where the government refused for more than a year to allow access to him by Swedish consular officials, who act as interlocutors between Washington and Pyongyang.

But last month North Korean officials asked for an emergency meeting with their American counterparts in New York and opened the door for his return. President Trump ordered a State Department envoy and a medical team to Pyongyang to take Mr. Warmbier home to Ohio, ending his parents’ nightmare and showing how intractable relations remain between the countries.

“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” in North Korea, Mr. Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday as he traveled to Ohio, with stops in Japan and Anchorage. They said they were grateful that their son would “finally be with people who love him.”

His plane landed at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati late Tuesday night and taxied to a row of hangars where an ambulance and a small crowd waited. Wearing dark pants and a blue shirt, Mr. Warmbier was carried off the plane and taken to University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Mr. Warmbier, 22, has been in a coma for “over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care,” said Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, who has been in touch with the Warmbier family and has served periodically as a negotiator with the North Korean government.

A senior American official said the United States obtained intelligence reports in recent weeks indicating that Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss intelligence and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there had been earlier concerns that Mr. Warmbier had died.

A second person who was involved in early discussions with North Koreans about American prisoners said Mr. Warmbier’s family at one point told friends they believed the North had killed their son.

Last month, Mr. Warmbier’s imprisonment came up as part of continuing negotiations in Oslo, during so-called Track 2 talks — unofficial discussions primarily involving American former senior officials and current North Korean officials and diplomats — about how the United States and North Korea could start resolving their differences, particularly over the North’s nuclear and missile programs. The subject of allowing Swedish officials to visit American prisoners was discussed at length. A short time later a Swedish representative was allowed to see one of three other Americans held in North Korea.

It was after that visit that the North Koreans urgently requested the meeting with American officials in New York, on June 6, when Joseph Y. Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, first learned of Mr. Warmbier’s grave medical condition. Mr. Yun was told the North wanted concessions in return for Mr. Warmbier’s release, according to a person familiar with the conversation. But Mr. Yun said that given Mr. Warmbier’s condition, Pyongyang must free him immediately.

By Monday, an American delegation, including Mr. Yun and a medical team, arrived in Pyongyang to take Mr. Warmbier home. After two doctors visited Mr. Warmbier, Mr. Yun demanded his return on humanitarian grounds, the State Department said.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson issued a statement on Tuesday announcing the release of Mr. Warmbier, without providing any details about the negotiations.

Much about the hastily arranged release remains a mystery. Mr. Warmbier’s evacuation was announced while Dennis Rodman — a former professional basketball player who has relationships with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and with Mr. Trump — was visiting North Korea. Mr. Rodman appeared on Mr. Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” in 2009 and traveled to North Korea in 2013.

A State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said Tuesday, “Dennis Rodman did not have anything to do with the release of Otto Warmbier.”

The specifics of Mr. Warmbier’s condition were not known. His family was told that he had contracted botulism and had been given a sleeping pill, causing him to slip into a coma, according to the people briefed on the situation, who insisted on anonymity to discuss the highly sensitive matter. But American officials suspect his condition is the result of his treatment at North Korean hands, given the record of the brutal treatment of past prisoners there.

“Out of respect for the privacy of Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment,” Mr. Tillerson said in his statement. Asked later at a Senate committee hearing about Mr. Warmbier’s health, he declined to comment.

Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said, “Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior.”

A senior aide to Mr. Portman said the senator had been working for months to secure Mr. Warmbier’s release, consulting Mr. Trump, Mr. Tillerson, Mr. Richardson and John Kerry, the former secretary of state.

“The North Koreans have a lot of explaining to do if he’s really been in a coma for months,” said Mr. Richardson, who has been in regular contact with the Warmbier family. “That’s outrageous that they didn’t notify the U.S. and that the Swedes have not been given access to him.”

Mr. Richardson, who helped negotiate the release of the American detainee Evan Hunziker in 1996, is one of a few American dignitaries who have traveled to North Korea to escort prisoners home to the United States.

Mr. Richardson added that it was very likely a coincidence that Mr. Warmbier had been released while Mr. Rodman was visiting North Korea and could be meeting with its leader, Mr. Kim.

“I have mixed reactions about Rodman’s visit,” Mr. Richardson said. “My hope is he gets a full explanation given Otto’s condition. My hope is that he is used to start dialogue.”

In a tearful news conference in Pyongyang after his arrest, Mr. Warmbier said he had stolen the poster because an acquaintance had offered to give him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange for it. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said. It is unclear whether his statement was genuine or coerced.