WASHINGTON Otto Warmbier, an American university student held captive in North Korea for 17 months, has been medically evacuated from the reclusive country after a rare high-level U.S. visit there, with his family saying he is in a coma.
Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was on his way back to the United States on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
The release came after Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special envoy on North Korea, traveled to Pyongyang and demanded his freedom on “humanitarian grounds,” culminating a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts, a U.S. official said
“Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States,” said Bill Richardson, a veteran former diplomat and politician who has played a role in past negotiations with North Korea, said after speaking to Warmbier’s parents.
The family said they were told by North Korean officials, through contacts with American envoys, that Warmbier fell ill from botulism sometime after his March 2016 trial and lapsed into a coma after taking a sleeping pill, the Washington Post reported.
Tillerson, at a U.S. Senate hearing on Tuesday, declined to comment on Warmbier’s condition.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, asked whether Warmbier’s release could open the way for dialogue amid high tensions between the Trump administration and North Korea, said “it’s just too soon to say.”
Warmbier’s release came as former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday, returning to the increasingly isolated nuclear-armed country where he has previously met leader Kim Jong Un.
The State Department denied any connection between Warmbier’s release and Rodman’s controversial visit, which the Trump administration said it did not authorize.
The State Department is continuing to discuss three other detained Americans with North Korea, Tillerson said.
Since taking office in January, U.S. President Donald Trump has faced a growing national security challenge from North Korea, which has conducted a series of ballistic missile tests in defiance of U.S. and international sanctions.
Warmbier was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March last year for trying to steal an item with a propaganda slogan, according to North Korean media.
In rare high-level contacts, Yun met senior North Korean officials in Oslo in May, where it was agreed that Swedish officials in Pyongyang, who handle U.S. consular affairs there, would be allowed to see all four American detainees, a State Department official said.
The North Koreans later urgently requested another meeting in New York, and on June 6 Yun met North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations and was told about Warmbier’s “condition,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Tillerson consulted with Trump, and arrangements were made for Yun and a medical team to travel to Pyongyang, the official said.
Yun arrived on Monday, visited Warmbier with two doctors and demanded his release, the official said. The North Koreans agreed and he was flown out on Tuesday, the official said.
“In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma,” Richardson, whose Center for Global Engagement had directly sought Warmbier’s release with the North Korean government, said in a statement.
Richardson is a former Democratic congressman, U.N. Ambassador, U.S. energy secretary and ex-governor of New Mexico.
The University of Virginia said it was relieved about Warmbier’s release but was “saddened to learn from his family that he is in a coma.”
U.S. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio said: “Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling.”
Yun’s trip was the highest-level U.S. visit since then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper traveled to North Korea in 2014 to secure the release of two Americans, Kenneth Bae and Matthew Todd Miller, who had been sentenced to hard labor.
(Reporting by Eric Walsh; Additional reporting Steve Holland, DAvid Brunnstrom, Lesley Wroughton, Ian Simpson, Mark Hosenball and Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Marguerita Choy and James Dalgleish)