North Korea said Thursday that it had released Otto Warmbier “on humanitarian grounds,” its first public statement about the University of Virginia student, who went to North Korea as a healthy young man and left in a coma.
Warmbier is now being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, in his home town, after being evacuated on a U.S. military medical plane on Tuesday.
North Korea’s state-run news agency said that a court had allowed Warmbier to return home “on humanitarian grounds,” despite the fact that he had been sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor after he attempted to take a poster from his hotel.
Warmbier, who is now 22, went to North Korea on an New Year’s Eve trip run by Young Pioneer Tours at the end of 2015. The company markets itself to young travelers by offering “budget tours to destinations your mother wants you to stay away from.”
In the early hours of New Year’s day, Warmbier apparently tried to steal a propaganda poster lauding the North Korean regime from the hotel where his tour group was staying. He was detained as he tried to board his flight out the following day.
At a one-hour trial in March, Warmbier was charged with subversion, a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward [the North],” according to state media reports. He was sentenced to 15 years’ in prison with hard labor.
Some time in March, Warmbier fell into a coma – but was kept in North Korea for another 14 months. North Korean representatives only disclosed his condition to American diplomats at a meeting on June 6.
Many analysts are calling for Kim Jong Un’s regime to be held responsible for Warmbier’s mistreatment.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anna Fifield