WASHINGTON (AP) — Otto Warmbier, an American college student serving a 15-year prison term in North Korea for alleged anti-state acts, was released and medically evacuated from the reclusive country Tuesday and has been in a coma for months, his parents said.
The announcement on Warmbier’s release came as former NBA player Dennis Rodman was paying a return visit to Pyongyang. Rodman is one of few people to have met both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. But Rodman said the issue of several Americans detained by North Korea is “not my purpose right now.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the State Department had secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of the president. He said Warmbier, 22, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was en route to the U.S., where he will be reunited with his family. Tillerson made no mention of Rodman’s visit, and said the department would have no further comment on Warmbier and his condition, citing privacy concerns.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement to The Associated Press that their son is in a coma and flying home. They said they have been told their son has been in a coma since March 2016 — when he was last seen in public, at his trial when he was sentenced to hard labor — and they had 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, they said. “We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
A North Korean foreign ministry official said Warmbier was released and left the country Tuesday morning. The official spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because no formal statement had been released.
It was not immediately clear if Rodman’s visit to North Korea was purely coincidental with Warmbier’s release. Rodman has traveled to the isolated nation four times previously. It is, however, his first trip since Trump, his former “Celebrity Apprentice” boss, became president. He told reporters in Beijing, as he departed for Pyongyang, that he hopes his trip will “open a door” for Trump.
The Trump administration sought to dampen speculation about Rodman’s role by sharing details of its diplomatic efforts to win consular access and freedom for Americans held in Pyongyang.
Joseph Yun, the U.S. envoy on North Korea, met with North Korean foreign ministry representatives in Norway last month, a White House official said. Such direct consultations between the two governments are rare as they do not have formal diplomatic relations.
At the meeting, North Korea agreed that Swedish diplomats could visit all four American detainees, which at that time included Warmbier. Yun then met last week with the North Korean ambassador at the U.N. in New York, where Yun learned about Warmbier’s condition. Yun was then dispatched to North Korea and visited Warmbier with two doctors on Monday, and demanded his release on humanitarian grounds.
The White House official was not authorized to speak on the record about the sequence of events and requested anonymity.
Tillerson said that the State Department is continuing “to have discussions” with North Korea about the release of other three American citizens who are jailed there.
Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court in March 2016. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion as he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.
The U.S. government condemned the sentence and accused North Korea of using such American detainees as political pawns.
The North Korean court held 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.”
North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to take control of the Korean Peninsula.
Before his trial, Warmbier had said he tried to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy for an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. That would be grounds in North Korea for a subversion charge. He identified the church as Friendship United Methodist Church.
In a tearful statement before his trial, Warmbier told a gathering of reporters in Pyongyang he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could get a propaganda banner and was also told that if he was detained and didn’t return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.
Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said in a statement that Tillerson had confirmed to him Warmbier’s release. He said that over the past 18 months, Warmbier’s family has “had to endure more than any family should have to bear.” He said Warmbier’s sentence was “unnecessary and appalling.” Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Cleveland described North Korea’s actions as “despicable.”
Warmbier is the second American freed from overseas detention after intervention by the Trump administration. In April, an Egyptian court acquitted Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American charity worker held for nearly three years, after Trump raised her case with the Egyptian president.
In the past, North Korea has held out until senior U.S. officials or statesmen came to personally bail out detainees, all the way up to former President Bill Clinton, whose visit in 2009 secured the freedom of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
In November 2014, U.S. spy chief James Clapper went to Pyongyang to bring home Matthew Miller, who had ripped up his visa when entering the country and was serving a six-year sentence on an espionage charge, and Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been sentenced to 15 years for alleged anti-government activities.
Jeffrey Fowle, another U.S. tourist from Ohio detained for six months at about the same time as Miller, was released just before that and sent home on a U.S. government plane. Fowle left a Bible in a local club hoping a North Korean would find it, which is considered a criminal offense in North Korea.
AP reporters Josh Lederman and Ken Thomas in Washington, Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang, North Korea, Daniel Sewell in Cincinnati, and video journalist Sara Gillesby in New York contributed to this report.