American student Otto Warmbier, who had been held prisoner in North Korea for 17 months, died at a Cincinnati hospital on Monday. His parents said he passed away just days after he returned to the Unites States. Doctors said Warmbier suffered extensive brain damage which has left him in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.” The 22-year-old was arrested in North Korea and was sentenced to a 15-year prison term while visiting the country as a tourist.
After his death, his family in a statement said, “Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”
They also said, “Warmbier lapsed into a coma in March 2016, shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea.”
US President Donald Trump issued a statement offering condolences to the Warmbier family and denouncing “the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.” Trump in his statement said, “Melania and I offer our deepest condolences to the family of Otto Warmbier on his untimely passing. There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him.
“Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Trump drew criticism in May when he said he would be “honoured” to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. He had said in the interview, “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it. If it’s under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that.”
Physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he died, said last Thursday that Warmbier showed no sign of understanding language or awareness of his surroundings, and had made no “purposeful movements or behaviours,” though he was breathing on his own.
There was no immediate word from Warmbier’s family on the cause of his death. The circumstances of his detention in North Korea and what medical treatment he may have received there remained a mystery, but relatives have said his condition suggested that he had been physically abused by his captors.
The University of Virginia student and Ohio native was arrested, according to North Korean media, for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan. North Korea released Warmbier last week and said he was being freed “on humanitarian grounds.” The North Korean mission to the United Nations was not available for comment on Monday.
Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, said last week that his son had been “brutalised and terrorised by the Pyongyang government and that the family disbelieved North Korea’s story that his son had fallen into a coma after contracting botulism and being given a sleeping pill. Doctors who examined Otto Warmbier after his release said there was no sign of botulism in his system.
Warmbier was freed after the US State Department’s special envoy on North Korea, Joseph Yun, travelled to Pyongyang and demanded the student’s release on humanitarian grounds, capping a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts, a US official said last week.
Tensions between the United States and North Korea have been heightened by dozens of North Korean missile launches and two nuclear bomb tests since the beginning of last year. Pyongyang has also vowed to develop a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States holds North Korea accountable for Warmbier’s “unjust imprisonment” and demanded the release of three other U.S. citizens still held by Pyongyang – Korean-Americans Tony Kim, Kim Dong Chul and Kim Hak Song.
Jonathan Bae, whose father, Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae spent two years in North Korean captivity before his release in 2014, expressed sadness at Warmbier’s death.
“My heart goes out to the family. I will pray for them and hope they find peace,” Jonathan Bae said.
Young Pioneer Tours, the group with which Warmbier travelled to North Korea, will no longer be organising tours for US citizens to the isolated country, Troy Collings, a company director, said in a statement.
(With Inputs from Reuters)