Tillerson: North Korea releases U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier
WASHINGTON — North Korea has released Otto Warmbier, an American serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday.
The 22-year-old contracted botulism and is in “bad shape” but en route back to the United States, a source close to the family told CNN.
“Otto has left North Korea. He is on Medivac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago,” said Fred and Cindy Warmbier in a statement.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korean. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed Warmbier’s release in a statement Tuesday.
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in a statement. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.”
The statement offered no other details but said the State Department is continuing “to have discussions” with North Korea about the release of other American citizens who are jailed there.
The statement said the department would have no further comment on Warmbier, citing privacy concerns.
In March 2016, North Korea’s highest court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion as he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.
Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court.
The U.S. government condemned the sentence and accused North Korea of using such American detainees as political pawns.
“Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior. Otto should have been released from the start,” said US Sen. Rob Portman, who represents Warmbier’s home state of Ohio. “Fred, Cindy, and the Warmbier family have been remarkably strong throughout this ordeal. Over the last 18 months, they have had to endure more than any family should have to bear.”
The 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. Meshach Kanyion, pastor of the church in Wyoming, declined to comment Wednesday.
North Korea announced Warmbier’s arrest in late January 2016, saying he committed an anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” Warmbier had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.
In a tearful statement made 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.”
Warmbier also said he had been encouraged by the university’s “Z Society,” which he said he was trying to join. The magazine of the university’s alumni association describes the Z Society as a “semi-secret ring society” founded in 1892 that conducts philanthropy, puts on honorary dinners and grants academic awards.
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.