TOKYO – University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been medically evacuated from North Korea in a coma after being detained for 17 months, his parents told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Warmbier, 22, is due to arrive home in Cincinnati on Tuesday evening, having been evacuated through a U.S. military base in Sapporo, Japan.
Warmbier has been in a coma for more than a year, since shortly after his last public appearance during his trial in Pyongyang in March 2016.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told The Post on Tuesday morning after Otto Warmbier was evacuated. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
His release was announced Tuesday morning in Washington by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson did not discuss Warmbier’s medical condition.
Tillerson called President Trump at 8:35 a.m. Tuesday to inform him that Warmbier was on an airplane en route to the United States, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the details. The last instruction the president left Tillerson was: “Take care of Otto,” the official said.
There had been no word of Otto since his sentencing in March last year, until suddenly, last Monday (JUNE 5), North Korean representatives contacted American counterparts and told them that student was in a coma.
Trump was immediately informed and ordered Otto’s medical evacuation, according to people with knowledge of the process. “This is a Trump-led effort,” one said.
The logistics were organized by Thursday last week, then Joseph Yun, the deputy assistant secretary of state in charge of North Korea, traveled to Pyongyang on a military medical plane, together with doctors, to bring Otto out. They landed in Sapporo on Tuesday night local time, before traveling on to Cincinnati.
Warmbier was on a New Year’s Eve tour in North Korea, en route to Hong Kong, where he was to do a January study-abroad trip.
But on his final night in Pyongyang — New Year’s Eve — Warmbier apparently went to a staff-only floor of his hotel and attempted to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime.
He was charged with “hostile acts against the state,” and after an hour-long trial in March 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
He had not been seen in public since. Swedish diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in North Korea because the United States has no diplomatic relations with the country, were denied access to him.
The Warmbiers were told that he contracted botulism soon after his trial and was given a sleeping pill, from which he never woke up.
There is no way of knowing yet whether the North Korean version of events is true, but the Warmbiers were told their son was in a coma the whole time. State Department officials are accompanying Otto Warmbier from Sapporo to Cincinnati.
North Korea has woefully inadequate medical care, and it is not clear how North Korean doctors had been caring for Warmbier for more than a year in an unconscious state.
Warmbier was flown out of North Korea on the same day that Dennis Rodman, the controversial former basketball star, arrived for his fifth visit in Pyongyang. Rodman’s trip caused a media frenzy because of heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States, but it also raised speculation that he might be going as an envoy to secure the release of Warmbier and three other Americans being detained.
Officials involved in securing Warmbier’s release told The Post that it had nothing to do with Rodman’s trip to Pyongyang, calling it a “bizarre coincidence” that might have been a deliberate ploy from North Korea to distract from Warmbier’s condition.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), called Warmbier’s arrest and trial “unnecessary and appalling.”
“North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior. Otto should have been released from the start,” Portman said in a statement. “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.”
A former Virginia resident, Kim Dong-chul, was arrested shortly after Warmbier, on accusations of espionage, and has been held since.
In April and May, North Korea detained two other Korean Americans, both of them affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private institution run by Korean American Christians.
Previous detainees have been released after visits from high-profile Americans, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But efforts to persuade North Korea to release the men currently held had not been successful until Warmbier’s release Tuesday.
David Nakamura in Washington contributed to this report.