WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that North Korea had released Otto Warmbier, an American serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts.
Tillerson said in a statement that Warmbier was on his way back to the U.S. to be re-united with his family. He said the State Department secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of President Trump. Tillerson said the State Department was still discussing two other detained Americans with North Korea.
Warmbier’s family told Washington Post on Tuesday that he was being evacuated in a coma, which he has apparently been in for more than a year.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told the Post after his son was out of the isolated nation, according to the story. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
The Post’s story said the family was notified by North Korea that Warmbier contracted botulism not long after his court appearance in March 2016 and was given sleep-inducing medication, after which he failed to wake up.
Tillerson’s announcement came as former NBA player Dennis Rodman paid a return visit to North Korea. Rodman said ahead of his trip that the detained Americans were not on his agenda, his fifth to the country but his first with President Trump in office.
Warmbier is a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati. He was sentenced in March 2016 after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
CBS News correspondent Seth Doane reported last year that Warmbier was in North Korea for a five-day visit and was detained at Pyongyang’s airport ahead of a flight back to China.
Kim Dong Chul, who was born in South Korea but is also believed to have U.S. citizenship, is serving a sentence of 10 years for espionage in the North, and in April this year, Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained according to the Pyongyang university at which he was working.
In previous cases, people who have been detained in North Korea and given a public confession often recant those admissions after their release.
Warmbier was arrested while visiting the country with Young Pioneer Tours, an agency specializing in travel to the North, which is strongly discouraged by the U.S. State Department. He had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, which is located on an island in a river that runs through Pyongyang.