An American university student who had been 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 parent said.
Otto Warmbier, 22, who was arrested in North Korea while visiting as a tourist, had been described by doctors caring for him last week as having 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.
In a coma
His family has said that Warmbier lapsed into a coma in March 2016, shortly after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea.
Physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where he was being treated, said last Thursday that Warmbier showed no sign of understanding language or of awareness of his surroundings, and had made no “purposeful movements or behaviors.”
There was no immediate word from Warmbier’s family on the precise cause of his death.
The circumstances of his detention in North Korea and what medical treatment he may have received there remained a mystery, but relatives have said his condition suggested that he had been physically abused by his captors.
The University of Virginia student and Ohio native was arrested, according to North Korean media, for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan.
North Korea released Warmbier last week and said he was being freed “on humanitarian grounds.”
The North Korean mission to the United Nations was not immediately available for comment on Monday.
U.S. President Donald Trump issued a statement offering condolences to the Warmbier family and denouncing “the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Trump told a group of corporate executives meeting with him at the White House that Warmbier had faced tough conditions during his captivity.
The president drew criticism in May when, in an interview with Bloomberg, he said he would be “honored” to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored 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 “brutalized and terrorized by the Pyongyang government and that the family disbelieved 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.
North Korea releases
Warmbier was freed after the U.S. State Department’s special envoy on North Korea, Joseph Yun, traveled to Pyongyang and demanded the student’s release on humanitarian grounds, capping a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts, a U.S. official said last week.
Tensions between the United States 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 U.S. mainland.
Susan Thornton, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said earlier on Monday that the United States was concerned for the welfare of the three other U.S. citizens still held in North Korea – Korean-Americans Tony Kim, Kim Dong Chul and Kim Hak Song.
Jonathan Bae, whose father, Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae spent two years in North Korean captivity before his release in 2014, expressed sadness at Warmbier’s death.
“My heart goes out to the family. I will pray for them and hope they find peace,” Jonathan Bae said.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier issued a statement Monday afternoon:
“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home. Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.”
“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.
“We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. 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.
“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that.
“We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers. We are at peace and at home too.
“Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family”