The world hasn’t heard from U.S. undergraduate student Otto Warmbier since his March 2016 sentencing in North Korea for 15 years of hard labor. Warmbier pleaded for mercy in court after being accused of a “hostile act,” which involved — by his admission (although the CCTV footage had already sealed the deal) — removing a political banner from a hotel to satisfy a church-group dare during a vacation. North Korea’s Supreme Court charged him with subversion, and Warmbier was convicted and sentenced after a one-hour trial. He’s now being freed, but this doesn’t arrive as happy news because Warmbier has reportedly been in a coma for at least a year.
North Korea has detained more U.S. citizens since Warmbier’s sentencing, and news dropped yesterday that former NBA showman Dennis Rodman supposedly embarked upon a diplomatic voyage to Pyongyang. As weird as the Rodman detail is, it was understood that he didn’t plan upon pushing for the release of detained Americans on this trip to North Korea. Indeed, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson never mentioned Rodman in a brief statement, which also alludes to talks on future releases of detainees:
“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.”
Warmbier has been medically evacuated via an American military base in Japan. He remains in a coma, as his father confirmed to the Washington Post. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident,” Fred Warmbier told the paper. “We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
At the time of his sentencing, North Korea’s harsh treatment of Warmbier was thought to point toward increased political tensions between the U.S. and Pyongyang. The past year has seen increasingly aggressive missile testing from Kim Jong-un and (bizarrely) a recent threat to nuke New York City. The threat was likely a massive troll job to counter Trump’s tweets, since there’s no chance of the country developing an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the Big Apple. At the same time, Tillerson is crediting Trump for Warmbier’s release, which should soon see a Trump tweet of victory.
UPDATE: CNN reports that Warmbier contracted botulism, which can lead to a coma if left untreated. Fred and his wife, Cindy, have issued a statement:
“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. 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.”