Otto F. Warmbier, a U.S. citizen who had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea last year, has been released.
Warmbier, a 23-year-old college student who was arrested in North Korea in January 2016, was medically evacuated from the country on Tuesday after a U.S. official envoy learned that he had been in a coma for more than a year.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement announcing Warmbier’s evacuation from North Korea on Tuesday, noting that the U.S. State Department was continuing talks with North Korea on the remaining U.S. citizens being held in the country.
“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,” Warmbier’s parents said in a statement to the press.
“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.” Warmbier is expected to arrive at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center later on Tuesday.
The circumstances of Warmbier’s release remain unclear, but reports, including in the New York Times and CNN confirm that U.S. diplomats, led by U.S. Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun, met with North Korean officials in New York City and in Oslo, Norway, to discuss the matter.
News of Warmbier’s deteriorating health only reached U.S. officials in recent weeks, leading to an urgent demand that he be released on humanitarian grounds on Monday. Warmbier contracted botulism, a potentially fatal bacterial illness, around a year ago, Yun learned. U.S. officials continue to question the North Korean version of events surrounding Warmbier’s treatment in the country and his release.
Warmbier’s release brings the number of U.S. citizens held against their will in North Korea to three. All other U.S. citizens being held in North Korea are of Korean origin and two of them — Kim Sang-duk and Kim Hak-song — worked the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology. The third is Kim Dong-chul, a businessman who was arrested in October 2015 on espionage charges.
News of Warmbier’s release emerged around the time that former basketball star Dennis Rodman returned to North Korea for a second visit. Rodman’s visit, however, appears to have no connection with Warmbier’s release. Before his previous trip to North Korea, Rodman appealed for the release of then-imprisoned U.S. citizen Kenneth Bae.
Rodman did not raise the issue of Bae’s imprisonment with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un while in Pyongyang. Bae, a U.S. missionary, nevertheless later credited Rodman for his eventual release in November 2014.