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 American Held by North Korea, Is Evacuated in a Coma

New York Times

Julie Hirschfeld, Russell Goldman, Adam Goldman

JUNE 13, 2017

 
 
Otto F. Warmbier, an American student, spoke to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea, in February 2016. Credit Kim Kwang Hyon/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Otto F. Warmbier, an American college student held prisoner in North Korea for more than a year, has been medically evacuated from the reclusive country in a coma and is on his way back to the United States, according to a statement from his parents.

“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” in North Korea, Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement to The Associated Press. They said they were grateful that their son, who was detained last year while traveling as a tourist, would “finally be with people who love him.”

Mr. Warmbier, 23, 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.

Mr. Warmbier was in fact alive, and his release Tuesday followed an extraordinary period of clandestine negotiations between American and North Korean officials in Oslo, Norway and New York. The talks intensified last month after a representative from Sweden, which acts as an interlocutor between Washington and Pyongyang, was granted visitation rights to one of three other Americans held in North Korea.

United States officials learned of Mr. Warmbier’s medical condition last week during a meeting with a North Korean official, and by Monday, an American delegation including a medical team had arrived in Pyongyang to bring him home, according to an account provided by the State Department. After two doctors visited Mr. Warmbier, a United States official demanded his release on humanitarian grounds, the State Department said, and he was evacuated on Tuesday.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson issued a statement on Tuesday announcing the release of Mr. Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who had been sentenced to a 15-year prison term for trying to steal a propaganda poster in January 2016.

People close to the negotiations that led to Mr. Warmbier’s release said he had traveled from Japan to Anchorage. There, the plane carrying him would refuel and continue on to Cincinnati, where his parents live.

Mr. Tillerson did not provide any details about the negotiations. But according to a senior State Department official, the process escalated in May, after Sweden was granted visitation rights to a different American detainee, and the North Koreans urgently requested a meeting with United States officials.

Joseph Yun, a State Department envoy for North Korea, met with North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York on June 6, the State Department official said, and that is when the Americans learned of Mr. Wambier’s condition.

After consulting with President Trump, Mr. Tillerson sent Mr. Yun to North Korea to obtain Mr. Warmbier’s release and informed Pyongyang that an American delegation would be traveling there.

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 also traveled to North Korea in 2013.

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

Much about the hastily arranged release remains a mystery, including the details of Mr. Warmbier’s condition. His family was told that he had contracted botulism and 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 negotiations. But that explanation has not been independently confirmed.

“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.”

Washington and Pyongyang do not maintain diplomatic relations; Swedish diplomats represent American interests in North Korea.

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 meet 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. He is the only American to ever meet Kim Jong-un. He is the only game in town.”

Mr. Warmbier visited North Korea on a group tour last year. He was about to board a flight home when he was detained.

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.

Hours after video of the news conference emerged, the Obama administration announced broad new sanctions against North Korea.

The last time Mr. Warmbier was seen in public was in a video taken at his trial in March 2016, in which he appeared dazed and seemingly had to be carried by North Korean soldiers.

The State Department has repeatedly warned citizens not to visit North Korea, which has detained a host of Americans over the years on a variety of charges. At least three other Americans remain in detention there.

Information about Mr. Warmbier’s condition and detention had been impossible to come by until now. Before last month, his last consular visit from Swedish diplomats had been in March 2016, according to Suzanne DiMaggio, a director and senior fellow at New America, a research institute in Washington, who participated in talks with North Korea in Oslo in May.

Keeping Mr. Warmbier isolated for so long was initially seen as retaliation for the sanctions issued in July 2016 against Mr. Kim. Now, it seems likely that it was an effort to conceal the state of Mr. Warmbier’s health, Ms. DiMaggio said.

“One way to look at this is maybe it’s a step forward: Maybe they will release the other three Americans, and negotiations can get started,” she said. “But if he was in a coma, that’s not a good sign. If his health becomes something more serious, it could actually dampen the atmosphere against talks.”

Ms. DiMaggio, who participated in talks with North Korean representatives in Norway last month, declined to speak about the content of those negotiations.

Mintaro Oba, who was a diplomat on the State Department’s Korea desk when Mr. Warmbier was arrested, said that during his tenure, the North Koreans had not allowed anyone from the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to visit Mr. Warmbier to assess his health or well-being.

“That’s sort of a very, very basic thing that we expect in this type of situation,” said Mr. Oba, who left the State Department in September, “that our protecting power would be able to send someone in to assess the health and livelihood of the person who is being detained.”