American Student Detained in North Korea Dies

(CN) – Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for nearly a year and a half, died Monday afternoon, less than a week after returning to the United States with severe brain damage.

The former University of Virginia student arrived in the U.S. on June 13,  comatose and unresponsive according to his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier.

“When Otto returned to Cincinnati … he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable, almost anguished. Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed – he was at peace. He was home and we believe he could sense that,” the Warmbiers said in a statement on Monday.

Warmbier, who originally hailed from Wyoming, Ohio before attending college at the University of Virginia, visited North Korea with a tour group in January 2016.  During his trip, he was detained for allegedly removing a propaganda poster from a hotel.

He was tried by North Korean officials with an “hostile act”  in March 2016.  After a one hour trial, the former National Merit scholar, soccer team captain and homecoming king of Wyoming High School in Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years hard labor.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” Warmbier’s parents said after the passing of their son.

Human rights organizations and the White House called for the immediate release of Warmbier but the pleas were ignored. In April 2016, just a month after he was sentenced, North Korea shared Warmbier’s MRI test results with the U.S. The photos showed brain damage, with clues that injury had occurred shortly after he was detained.

U.S. intelligence reports implied that the Ohio-native was beaten badly. But specific details of his time imprisoned in North Korea remain unclear. The North Korean government refused to allow any outside access to Warmbier, including contact with Swedish consular officials who typically serve as the go-betweens for Washington and the authoritarian regime.

President Donald Trump issued a statement shortly after Warmbier’s death was announced on Monday evening, offering his condolences and condemnations.

“Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency,” Trump said. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

Vice President Mike Pence retweeted the president’s statement, adding “Karen & I are so saddened to hear this. We’re praying for Otto’s family tonight. A tragic example of North Korea’s disregard for human life.”

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose department was tasked with securing Warmbier’s return, only said that they held North Korea “accountable” for the American student’s “unjust imprisonment.” Tillerson also called for the release of three other U.S. citizens still trapped in Pyongyang.

North Korean officials said the cause of the 22-year old’s release was for “humanitarian reasons.”  As he was first being medivaced back to the U.S., it was believed Warmbier suffered from botulism.

Young Pioneer Tours, the China-based tour group Warmbier traveled with to North Korea said on Monday that it would no longer permit Americans to travel to North Korea through their service.

“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists. There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality and we have been struggling to process the result. Now the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high,” the company said.  “The way his detention was handled was appalling and a tragedy like this must never be repeated. Despite constant requests we were denied any opportunity to meet him or anyone in contact with him in Pyongyang, only receiving assurances that he was fine. There has still been almost no information disclosed about his period in detention. Considering these facts and this tragic outcome we will no longer be organizing tours for U.S. citizens to North Korea.”

Still being held captive in North Korea are Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, each who worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology before their 2016 arrests. Businessman Kim Dong-chul also remains under lock and key in North Korea – charged with espionage, he has remained captive since 2015.

This chapter of their harrowing saga closing, the Warmbiers reflected back on the “warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds,” instead of all the time their family has lost.

“We chose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities he touched – Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two – that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family … we thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers. We are at peace and at home too.”

Warmbier would have graduated with the University of Virginia’s 2017 class.

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