Otto Warmbier: American student freed by North Korea back on US soil
A plane carrying Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student arrested, tried and imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year, and who is now in a coma, landed in his hometown of Cincinnati Tuesday night and he was rushed to a hospital for urgent medical treatment.
The U.S. military flight landed at Lunken Airport at approximately 10:20pm ET and was met by an ambulance to race him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.
A U.S. official confirmed to Fox News that Warmbier, 22, was in a coma and had been for "over a year." The official added that the North Koreans told the U.S. that Warmbier contracted botulism before slipping into a coma. However, the two U.S. doctors traveling with him have not been able to confirm that claim, the official said.
The New York Times, citing an unnamed senior American official, said the U.S. had received intelligence reports in recent weeks that Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten.
Warmbier has served just over a year of his 15-year sentence — allegedly for taking down a sign of the late dictator Kim Jong Il while he was in the country with a tour group
Neighbor Tom Purdy described him to Fox News as "a great kid – truly outstanding… an athlete, a national merit scholar and prom king. He is awesome."
"We’re very concerned for his health and future. We hope he can return to normal. We’ve been praying for him every night."
Blue and white ribbons lined the street near the family home.
A group of students playing tennis outside Wyoming high school, which Warmbier attended, said he is known in the community as "an outstanding student" and a "wonderful guy". While happy he’s home, one student said he was "heartbroken to learn he’s in a coma."
His medical evacuation followed a brief flurry of diplomatic activity that involved the highest level of the State Department.
"At the direction of the president, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. "Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family. The Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained. Out of respect for the privacy of Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment on Mr. Warmbier."
Warmbier’s parents, who have appeared on Fox News Channel in the past to plead for their son’s release, expressed somber gratitude.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told The Washington Post Tuesday morning, after his son had been evacuated from North Korea. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
Top U.S. officials were quick to express revulsion at North Korea’s reported abuse of the student.
“Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said in a statement. “Otto should have been released from the start. For North Korea to imprison Otto with no notification or consular access for more than a year is the utmost example of its complete failure to recognize fundamental human rights and dignity.”
“Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States,” former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who worked for Warmbier’s release with his Center for Global Engagement, said in a statement obtained by Fox News. “We received a call from Cindy and Fred Warmbier early today to update us on Otto’s condition. In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma.”
Warmbier was detained on Jan. 2, 2016, at Pyongyang International Airport, while visiting the country as a tourist with Young Pioneer Tours. He was charged with stealing the sign from a staff-only floor in the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang and committing “crimes against the state.” He was given a one-hour trial in March 2016, when the government presented fingerprints, CCTV footage and pictures of a political banner to make its case against the American student.
“I beg that you see how I am only human,” Warmbier said at his trial. “And how I have made the biggest mistake of my life.”
Despite his pleas, the college student was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. In a post-trial video released to the world, Warmbier, under obvious duress, praised his captors for his treatment and for handling of the case “fair and square."
Foreigners who have been detained or imprisoned in the Hermit Kingdom often have a shared experience: confusion, forced confessions, communication blackouts and isolation.
Warmbier’s release leaves three U.S. citizens currently known to be held in North Korea: accounting professor Kim Sang Duk, businessman Kim Dong Chul and Kim Hak-Song, who worked at Pyongyang University.
Warmbier’s release comes amid worsening tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, largely owing to Pyongyang’s continued testing of nuclear-capable missiles.
The U.S. has no diplomatic relations in North Korea.
Meantime, former NBA star Dennis Rodman, a self-described friend of Kim Jong Un, recently landed in North Korea on a non-U.S.-sanctioned mission he said was aimed at promoting sports in the isolated nation.