An American college student who fell into a coma more than a year ago while detained by North Korea was returned to the U.S. Tuesday in a stunning display of diplomatic dexterity by the White House.
A military airplane carrying 22-year-old Otto Warmbier of Ohio landed in Cincinnati late Tuesday night. The 22-year-old was then taken by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
Warmbier had been serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts in the reclusive North since he was sentenced by the regime in March 2016.
But the feel-good story took a darker turn amid revelations that Warmbier was in a coma, and had been medically evacuated from the North after a rare visit there from a high-level U.S. official.
In a statement to U.S. media, Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, confirmed news of the medevac flight.
“Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” the parents 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.”
The Washington Post first reported on Warmbier’s condition, saying he had been evacuated via a U.S. military base in Sapporo and had been in a coma for more than a year, since shortly after a final public appearance at his March 2016 show trial in Pyongyang.
According to The Post, the Warmbiers were told by North Korean officials through U.S. envoys that their son had contracted botulism soon after his trial and was given a sleeping pill, from which he never woke up.
But The New York Times, quoting a senior U.S. official, reported that Washington had recently received intelligence reports that Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in custody. The North Korean version of how Warmbier fell into a coma could not be corroborated.
“In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma,” Bill Richardson, a veteran former diplomat and New Mexico governor who has played a role in past negotiations with Pyongyang, said in a statement after speaking with Warmbier’s parents.
Thomas Shannon, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in Seoul that Joseph Yun — the State Department’s special envoy on North Korea — had been behind Warmbier’s evacuation.
The move was the first confirmed dispatch of a high-ranking U.S. official to the North by President Donald Trump since he took office in January.
“Joe Yun went to Pyongyang (Monday) to accompany Mr. Warmbier,” Kyodo News quoted Shannon as saying Wednesday after a meeting with South Korean Vice Foreign Minister Lim Sung Nam in Seoul.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had earlier announced news of Warmbier’s release in a short statement.
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said, adding that the State Department “continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained.”
Warmbier’s release came the same day former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman — who has visited the North at least five times and met with leader Kim Jong Un — arrived in Pyongyang.
It was unclear if Rodman had played any role in the release, but the State Department said the former athlete had nothing to do with it.
At Beijing International Airport ahead of his departure Tuesday, the onetime NBA bad boy said that he was “just trying to open a door,” and that the issue of the Americans currently detained in the North was “not my purpose right now.”
Instead, according to U.S. media, the release came after Yun traveled to Pyongyang and demanded his freedom on “humanitarian grounds,” capping a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts.
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, had been detained for trying to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel while on a trip to the country. He said he had taken the poster on behalf of a member of his Ohio church who wanted it “as a trophy” and would exchange it for a used car worth $10,000.
According to reports citing unidentified U.S. officials, Yun met senior North Korean officials in Oslo in May, apparently as part of a delegation conducting informal talks, where it was agreed that Swedish officials in Pyongyang, who handle U.S. consular affairs there, would be allowed to see all four American detainees.
Afterward, the North Koreans urgently requested a meeting in New York and Yun met North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations on June 6, when he was told about Warmbier’s dire condition.
Tillerson consulted with Trump, and arrangements were made for Yun and a medical team to travel to Pyongyang. Yun arrived Monday, visited Warmbier with two doctors, and demanded his release, the reports said. The North Koreans agreed and he was flown out Tuesday.
The dramatic release and Rodman’s trip, which reportedly will run through Saturday, come amid heightened tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the North’s nuclear and missile program and its jailing of three other Americans.
After Warmbier’s release, the other Americans still held by the North include Kim Sang Duk and Kim Hak-song, two academics who worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and businessman Kim Dong Chul.
Asked Tuesday if Warmbier’s release could spur a return to dialogue, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “It’s just too soon to say what that dialogue is going to look like.”
James Schoff, an Asia expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said that rather than a gesture of goodwill, Warmbier’s deteriorating condition appeared to have forced the North Koreans’ hand.
“I hope Warmbier will recover, and if he does then the impact might be muted, but if he dies, then the senseless murder of a young American college student will hit hard and I’d expect some justified outrage,” Schoff said.
“It will make it harder for the U.S. to support any South Korean engagement — let alone any U.S. engagement — until the remaining Americans are freed,” Schoff added.
Beyond the three Americans held by the North, Pyongyang has also tested Washington’s patience by unleashing a string of missile launches and tests of other advanced weaponry in recent weeks, as it seeks to highlight its progress toward mastering technology needed to mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In written testimony to lawmakers ahead of a hearing on the Pentagon budget Monday, U.S. defense chief James Mattis called North Korea “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security” — a dubious distinction that saw it displace Russia as the top threat to the United States.
Euan Graham, a former British diplomat who served in Pyongyang and who is currently director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Australia, said the Warmbier release could also have implications for Tokyo.
The North has threatened to strike U.S. bases and other sites in Japan — prompting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to push for a tightening of the sanctions noose around Pyongyang in hopes of reining in its missile and nuclear ambitions.
According to Graham, the news of Warmbier’s apparent mistreatment could dampen any push for dialogue with the nuclear-armed North.
“For Japan, it’s probably good news, as the U.S., China and South Korea have all indicated or hinted they are in favor of some sort of deal, which leaves Japan somewhat isolated,” Graham said. “Presumably, Abe is happier with a policy of enhanced sanctions.”
Information from Reuters and AP added