WASHINGTON — An American college student who has been in a coma, according to his parents, while serving a 15-year prison term in North Korea, was released and evacuated Tuesday as the Trump administration revealed a rare exchange with the reclusive country.
The release of Otto Warmbier came during a visit to North Korea by former NBA star Dennis Rodman, one of few people to have met both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Rodman had nothing to do with Warmbier’s release. Rodman had told reporters before arriving in Pyongyang that the issue of Americans detained by North Korea is “not my purpose right now.”
Instead, the administration credited the release to its diplomatic intervention. It said its special envoy on North Korean policy met with North Korean foreign ministry representatives in Norway last month. The North Koreans agreed to allow consular visits to four Americans held in the North. Such meetings are unusual because the two governments do not have diplomatic relations.
While North Korea’s move to free Warmbier could potentially provide an opening for talks on security issues, the prospects still appear bleak. International negotiations on the dispute over North Korea’s nuclear program have been in limbo for years, as the U.S. cranks up economic sanctions and North Korea won’t give up weapons it considers a guarantee against invasion.
The detention of Americans, often sentenced to draconian prison sentences for seemingly small offences in the totalitarian nation, has compounded tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. Three Americans remain in custody.
Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court in March 2016. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour for subversion after he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the State Department had secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of the president. He said Warmbier, of Cincinnati, was en route to the U.S.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement to The Associated Press that their son is in a coma and flying home. They said they were told their son has been in a coma since his trial — when he was last seen in public — and they had learned of this only one week ago. U.S. officials did not confirm those details. The State Department would not comment on Warmbier’s condition, citing privacy concerns. Nauert said the last consular visit to Warmbier, by Swedish diplomats, was March 2.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” in North Korea, Warmbier’s parents said. “We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
A White House official said Trump had instructed Tillerson to take all appropriate measures to secure the release of Americans held in North Korea. The official referred to them as “hostages.”
The U.S. government accuses North Korea of using such detainees as political pawns. North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.
Following the May meeting in Oslo, North Korea urgently requested another meeting, which took place last week between the U.S. envoy on North Korea, Joseph Yun, and the North’s ambassador at the U.N. in New York. There, Yun learned about Warmbier’s “condition,” the White House official said.
The official, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the sequence of events and requested anonymity, said that after Tillerson consulted with Trump, Yun was dispatched to North Korea. He visited Warmbier with two doctors on Monday, and demanded his release on humanitarian grounds. Warmbier was evacuated Tuesday.
A North Korean foreign ministry official, requesting anonymity because no formal North Korean statement had been released, said only that Warmbier was released and left the country Tuesday.
It’s not clear if Warmbier’s release during Rodman’s visit was purely coincidental. Rodman has travelled to the isolated nation four times since 2013, attracting a lot of publicity, much of it unfavourable. In 2014, Rodman arranged a basketball game with other former NBA players and North Koreans and regaled leader Kim with a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Rodman’s current trip is his first since Trump, his former “Celebrity Apprentice” boss, became president. He told reporters in Beijing, as he departed for Pyongyang, that he hopes his trip will “open a door” for Trump.
North Korea poses one of the greatest national security challenges for Trump as it tries to develop a nuclear-tipped missile that could strike America. He is looking to increase economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea, with help from China, but has said he’s open to meeting Kim.
In the past, North Korea has held out until senior U.S. officials or statesmen came to personally bail out detainees. A 2009 visit by former President Bill Clinton secured the freedom of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
Tillerson said the State Department is continuing “to have discussions” with North Korea about the release of other three American citizens imprisoned there. They are:
— Kim Hak Song, who was detained in early May to be investigated for committing unspecified hostile acts, North Korea has said. He worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
— Tony Kim, who also goes by his Korean name Kim Sang-duk, was detained April 22 at the Pyongyang airport. He had also taught at the university. He was accused of committing unspecified criminal acts intended to overthrow the government.
— South Korean-born U.S. citizen Kim Dong Chul, who was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years in prison with hard labour after being convicted of espionage.
AP reporters Josh Lederman and Ken Thomas in Washington, Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang, North Korea, Daniel Sewell in Cincinnati, and video journalist Sara Gillesby in New York contributed to this report.
Matthew Lee And Matthew Pennington, The Associated Press