Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was evacuated from North Korea with a coma on Tuesday and is returning to his parents’ home in Cincinnati, Ohio. Warmbier signed up for a five-day tour of North Korea with a Chinese company and was detained on his January 2016 trip at the airport in Pyongyang just as he was to depart. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor after being convicted of trying to steal a propaganda poster. According to Warmbier in a press conference, he said he stole the poster because he was promised a used car worth $10,000 if he could provide them with the poster. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” Warmbier said, although it’s unclear if the statement was coerced in any way. A later video released by the North Korean government showed Warmbier dazed and stumbling as he was led to prison.
Details since his conviction have been very hard to come by, as North Korea refused to discuss the case with American negotiators until last month. According to Bill Richardson, former governor of New Mexico and North Korean government negotiator, Warmbier has been in a coma for more than 12 months. Other anonymous sources say that there were points in the Warmbier case where it was believed he had been killed by prison beatings. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declined to comment on Warmbier’s health situation.
In a statement released by Warmbier’s parents, they said they “want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime”. Rob Portman, Republican Senator from Ohio, also condemned North Korea’s handling of the situation, saying, “Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior.”