US student freed by North Korea dies

Otto Warmbier was released in a coma last week after nearly 18 months in detention in North Korea.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Otto Warmbier was on a tourist trip when he was arrested and sentenced last year to 15 years hard labour for stealing a political poster from a North Korean hotel, a punishment the United States decried as far out of proportion to his alleged crime.

An American university student who was held prisoner in North Korea for 17 months died at a Cincinnati hospital on Monday, just days after he was released from captivity in a coma, his family said.

Otto Warmbier, 22, was arrested in North Korea while visiting as a tourist. Doctors caring for him last week said he was released with extensive brain damage that left him in a state of "unresponsive wakefulness."

"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," the family said in a statement after Warmbier's death.

TRT World's Sarah Jones reports.

Warmbier's state suggested severe physical abuse

His family has said that Warmbier lapsed into a coma in March 2016, shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea.

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. They said he was breathing on this own, but made no "purposeful movements or behaviours."

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. Relatives have said his condition suggested that he had been physically abused by his captors.

DPRK media said the University of Virginia student and Ohio native was arrested for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan.

Pyongyang 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.

US President Donald Trump issued a statement offering condolences to the Warmbier family and denounced "the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim."

The president drew criticism in May when he said he would be "honoured" to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and called him a "pretty smart cookie" for his hold on power.

"If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honoured to do it," Trump said in the interview. "If it's under the, again, under the right circumstances. But I would do that."

The student's father, Fred Warmbier, said last week that his son had been "brutalised and terrorised by the Pyongyang government. He said the family did not believe 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. That capped a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts, a US official said last week.

Tensions between the US 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 US mainland.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US holds North Korea accountable for Warmbier's "unjust imprisonment" and demanded the release of three other US citizens still held by Pyongyang, Korean-Americans Tony Kim, Kim Dong Chul and Kim Hak Song.

TRTWorld and agencies