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North Korea

North Korea says it freed comatose US student for humanitarian reasons as parents say son was ‘brutalised’

Otto Warmbier was medically evacuated from North Korea and arrived in Cincinnati late Tuesday

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 1:26pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 June, 2017, 11:26pm

North Korea said Thursday it released an American university student over “humanitarian” reasons in its first official comment since he was returned to his home state of Ohio in a coma.

The state-run Korean Central News Agency said Otto Warmbier had been serving hard labour but didn’t comment on his medical condition or how the country negotiated his release with the United States.

“Warmbier, who had been in hard labour, was sent back home on June 13, 2017, on humanitarian grounds according to the adjudication made on the same day by the Central Court of the DPRK,” the agency said in the one-sentence report, referring to North Korea by its official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The 22-year-old Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court in March 2016. He got 15 years in prison with hard labour for subversion after he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.

He was medically evacuated from North Korea and arrived in Cincinnati late Tuesday. His father, Fred Warmbier, told Fox News that his son was “terrorised and brutalised” and has been in a coma for more than a year.

Late on Thursday, Fred Warmbier said his son had suffered a “severe” neurological injury but was stable. He also said the family did not believe North Korea’s story, that their son had fallen into a coma after contracting botulism and being given a sleeping pill.

“We don’t believe anything they [North Korea] say,” Fred Warmbier said.

The US, South Korea and others often accuse North Korea of using foreign detainees to wrest diplomatic concessions. Three Americans remain in custody in North Korea over accusations including alleged “hostile acts” and spying.

Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, said there should be an investigation into what happened to Warmbier leading to this “tragic situation”.

Richardson, a Democrat, credited the Department of State with securing Warmbier’s return from North Korea without any preconditions but said a forceful response from the US government would be required “if its determined that there was a cover-up and Otto’s condition was not disclosed and he didn’t get proper treatment”.

Future US back-channel diplomacy with North Korea may depend on condition of American student Otto Warmbier

The US 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.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday that his department was continuing “to have discussions” with North Korea about the release of the other three imprisoned American citizens.

When asked by Fox News what he would tell the families of those detained, Fred Warmbier said, “I wouldn’t know what to say to them. This is, I’ve been told, not precedented.”

Additional reporting by Reuters