The student had been in coma since March 2016, after getting botulism. He was repatriated following a decision of a North Korean court. In prison, he was “terrorised and brutalised”, his family said. His release came after a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts.
Seoul (AsiaNews) – North Korea released US student Otto Warmbier "on humanitarian grounds", state media said Thursday, two days after he was evacuated from Pyongyang after falling into a coma whilst in prison.
"Otto Frederick Warmbier, who had been in hard labour, was sent back home on June 13, 2017 on humanitarian grounds according to the adjudication made on the same day by the Central Court of the DPRK," the state-run Korean Central News Agency said in a statement.
The 22-year-old student from Cincinnati was convicted for trying to steal a propaganda banner and sentenced to 15 years in prison. His father, Fred Warmbier, told media that his son was “terrorised and brutalised” by Kim Jong-un’s regime.
The young man’s parents Fred and Cindy have said that they were told their son had been in a coma since March 2016, allegedly after falling ill from botulism and being given a sleeping pill.
The New York Times reported a senior US official as saying the authorities recently received intelligence indicating Warmbier was repeatedly beaten whilst in custody.
His release came after a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts between Washington and Pyongyang, which culminated in Joseph Yun, the State Department's special envoy on North Korea, travelling to Pyongyang to secure Warmbier's release.
The North has occasionally jailed US citizens and released them only after visits by high-profile political figures, including former president Bill Clinton.
The US government accuses North Korea of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses the United States and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.
Three other US citizens are still in North Korean prisons: Kim Dong-chul, 62, sentenced to ten years of forced labour; Kim Sang-duk, detained since last April; and Kim Hak-song who was arrested in last May.
Whether the back-channel diplomacy will lead to broader talks with North Korea may depend on Warmbier’s condition. Meanwhile, White House officials declined to comment on the geopolitical implications of his case.