American university student Otto Warmbier has been released after 17 months of captivity in North Korea, but he is in a coma and in need of immediate medical treatment, a former U.S. official said Tuesday.
“Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States,” said former diplomat and politician Bill Richardson, who has been involved in prior negotiations with North Korea.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed in a statement that Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student from Ohio, was on his way back to the United States. He is expected to arrive home Tuesday evening, after a stop at a U.S. military installation in Sapporo, Japan.
North Korean officials told American envoys that Warmbier fell ill with botulism sometime after his trial in March 2016, according to Warmbier’s family. The North Koreans claim that Warmbier took a sleeping pill and never woke up, remaining in a coma ever since.
Warmbier was serving a 15-year sentence for “hostile acts” against the North Korean state after he allegedly attempted to take down or steal a propaganda banner while on a tour of the country.
U.S. officials have not confirmed North Korea’s description of Warmbier’s illness, but botulism, while potentially fatal, is not typically associated with loss of consciousness or coma.
“In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma,” said Richardson, who led an effort within his organization, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, to see Warmbier released.
The student’s release came just as former star athlete Dennis Rodman arrived in the country on Tuesday. Rodman’s trip, according to a senior administration official, is unauthorized.
“This is him freelancing,” the official told Reuters.
North Korea still holds three other Americans captive:
• Kim Hak-song, who worked for the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, was detained in May under suspicion of “hostile acts” against the North Korean government.
• Kim Sang-duk, more commonly known by his nickname “Tony Kim,” was arrested in April waiting for a flight at the Pyongyang airport. Kim also worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and stands accused of “criminal acts of hostility” against the regime.
• Kim Dong-chul, accused of spying and sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in April 2016. A former resident of Virgina, Kim is a businessman who ran a trade and hotel services company in Yanji, China.
According to the Washington Post, in a secret meeting in Oslo last month between the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, Joseph Yun, and high-level North Korean officials, Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang will be allowed to visit the three other American prisoners for the first time since they were arrested.
Because the United States lacks official diplomatic ties to the country, U.S. diplomacy in North Korea is handled by Swedish officials.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told the Washington Post on Tuesday. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
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