TOKYO — University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been medically evacuated from North Korea in a coma after being detained for 17 months, his parents told The Washington Post on Tuesday.
Warmbier, 22, is due to arrive home in Cincinnati on Tuesday evening, after a stop at a U.S. military facility near Sapporo, Japan.
The family said they were informed that North Korean officials had told American envoys that Warmbier became ill with botulism sometime after his March, 2016, trial in North Korea, where he was serving a 15-year-sentence for “hostile acts against the state.”
The North Korean account, the family said, claimed Warmbier then fell into a coma after being given a sleeping pill. The Warmbiers said they were told their son has remained in a coma since then.
There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. officials of North Korea’s description of his illness — including whether he was stricken with botulism, a potentially fatal disease that is caused by a toxin but is not usually associated with loss of consciousness.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told The Post on Tuesday morning after Otto Warmbier was evacuated. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
According to Trump administration officials, information about Warmbier’s condition was transmitted on June 6 by North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations to Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, at a meeting in New York.
That meeting followed an earlier, secret meeting last month between Yun and high-level North Korean officials in Oslo. At that time, North Korea agreed that Swedish diplomats in Pyongyang, who handle U.S. affairs there, would be allowed for the first time to visit four Americans imprisoned by the North, including Warmbier.
It was after the Swedish consular visit — confirming Warmbier’s condition — that North Korea urgently requested to meet with Yun in New York last week.
Yun immediately informed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of the situation, according to the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity about the still-secret arrangements.
Tillerson, they said, consulted with President Trump, and Yun was instructed to prepare to travel to Pyongyang with the intention of bring Warmbier back to the United States. A medical team and aircraft were organized, and North Korea was informed that a delegation would travel there.
Yun arrived in Pyongyang early Monday and immediately requested that North Korean officials take him and two American physicians to Warmbier. It was the first time the United States was able to confirm his status since he was sentenced.
Yun insisted on Warmbier’s immediate release on humanitarian grounds, officials said, and the North Koreans agreed.
Tillerson called Trump at 8:35 a.m. Tuesday to inform him that Warmbier was on an airplane en route to the United States, an official said. The last instruction the president left Tillerson was: “Take care of Otto,” the official said.
“We are thankful that he is on his way home,” said Heather Nauert, State Department spokeswoman. “We look forward to him being back in the arms of his parents in Ohio.”
At the time of his arrest, Warmbier had been on a stopover tour in North Korea, en route to Hong Kong, where he was to do a January 2016 study-abroad trip.
But on his final night in Pyongyang — New Year’s Eve — he apparently went to a staff-only floor of his hotel and attempted to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime.
He was charged with “hostile acts against the state.” After an hour-long trial in March 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
He had not been seen in public since. Swedish diplomats, who represent U.S. interests in North Korea because the United States has no diplomatic relations with the country, had been denied access to him until late last month, following Yun’s Oslo meeting.
North Korea has woefully inadequate medical care, and it is not clear how North Korean doctors had been caring for Warmbier for more than a year in an unconscious state.
Warmbier was flown out of North Korea on the same day that Dennis Rodman, the controversial former basketball star, arrived for his fifth visit in Pyongyang. Rodman’s trip caused a media frenzy because of heightened tensions between North Korea and the United States, but it also raised speculation that he might be going as an envoy to secure the release of Warmbier and three other Americans being detained.
Officials involved in securing Warmbier’s release told The Post that it had nothing to do with Rodman’s trip to Pyongyang, calling it a “bizarre coincidence” that might have been a deliberate ploy from North Korea to distract from Warmbier’s condition.
“Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with the release of Mr. Warmbier,” Nauert said. “I’ve not spoken with Dennis Rodman. Let me reiterate this: we strongly, strongly suggest that Americans do not go to North Korea.”
One of Warmbier’s roommates at U-Va., Emmett Saulnier, said he got a call Tuesday morning from Fred Warmbier to inform him of the release.
“I’m mostly just very happy to hear that he’s coming home and alive,” Saulnier said. “The coma is obviously very concerning. I’m not really sure what to think of that at this point … I’m hoping it’s not as bad as it sounds and he’ll wake up and be okay.”
Saulnier added, “I’m glad he’s going to have the best medical care, rather than whatever was going on over there.”
Warmbier would have graduated last month had he not been detained.
“While the entire University of Virginia community is relieved to learn of Otto’s release from North Korea, we are deeply concerned and saddened to learn from his family that he is in a coma,” U-Va.’s president, Teresa A. Sullivan, said in a written statement Tuesday.
“The last 17 months have been an extremely difficult and emotionally trying time for the Warmbier family,” she said. “The U-Va. family will continue to keep the Warmbiers in our thoughts and prayers as Otto returns to the United States and his home where he will receive the care and support of those who love him.”
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), called Warmbier’s arrest and trial “unnecessary and appalling.”
“North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior. Otto should have been released from the start,” Portman said in a statement. “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.”
Lawmakers from Virginia also hailed Warmbier’s release and denounced North Korea of its actions.
Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) called Warmbier’s freedom “a long time coming” after facing “trumped-up charges.”
“It is horrific that a young man in a coma was incarcerated in a North Korea jail,” Connolly said in a statement.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), meanwhile, said he was “heartened to see the reuniting of the Warmbier family, despite the tragic circumstances.”
A former Virginia resident, Kim Dong-chul, was arrested shortly after Warmbier, on accusations of espionage, and has been held since.
In April and May, North Korea detained two other Korean Americans, both of them affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, a private institution run by Korean American Christians.
Previous detainees have been released after visits from high-profile Americans, including former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But efforts to persuade North Korea to release the men currently held had not been successful until Warmbier’s release Tuesday.
DeYoung reported from Washington. David Nakamura, Jenna Portnoy and Susan Svrluga in Washington contributed to this report.