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North Korea

Donald Trump blames ‘brutal’ North Korea for death of American student Otto Warmbier

Pyongyang freed Otto Warmbier last week, saying he fell into a coma soon after being sentenced last year for trying to steal a propaganda poster

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 5:17am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 2:27pm

Otto Warmbier, the US student released in a coma last week after nearly 18 months in detention in North Korea, died on Monday, leading President Donald Trump to decry the “brutal regime” in Pyongyang.

The 22-year-old was medically evacuated to the United States on Tuesday last week, suffering from severe brain damage. He died six days later surrounded by relatives in his hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.

“The awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible,” the family said in a statement announcing Warmbier’s death.

The young man was on a tourist trip when he was arrested and sentenced in March last year to 15 years hard labour for stealing a political poster from a North Korean hotel, a punishment the United States decried as far out of proportion to his alleged crime.

Trump lashed out at Pyongyang following news of his death, voicing compassion for his family.

“It’s a brutal regime,” he said during a White House event. “Bad things happened but at least we got him home to his parents.”

In a separate written statement, Trump said, “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.”

“The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

Earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for the release of other Americans being held by Pyongyang: “We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment, and demand the release of three other Americans who have been illegally detained.”

Doctors last week revealed that Warmbier had suffered severe neurological injuries, and described him as being in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness”, opening his eyes and blinking, but showing no signs of understanding language or of being aware of his surroundings.

His family said on Monday that he first appeared anguished when he first arrived home, but died “at peace”,

Kim Jong-un’s government claimed Warmbier fell into a coma soon after he was sentenced last year, saying the college student had contracted botulism and been given a sleeping pill.

Medical tests carried out last week in the United States offered no conclusive evidence as to the cause of his neurological injuries, and no evidence of a prior botulism infection. Warmbier’s doctors said he had suffered extensive tissue loss in all regions of his brain, but showed no signs of physical trauma.

They said that given his young age, Warmbier’s severe brain injury was most likely caused by cardiopulmonary arrest cutting the blood supply to the brain.

Warmbier’s release came amid mounting tensions with Washington following a series of missile tests by Pyongyang, focusing attention on an arms buildup that Pentagon chief James Mattis has dubbed “a clear and present danger to all”.

The young man’s death also brought attention to North Korea’s human rights record. A Washington-based charity tied Warmbier’s fate to many others “starved, tortured, brutalised and killed in North Korea’s political prison camps”.

“Millions of unknown North Koreans are subjected to the brutality of the Kim regime,” the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea said in a statement.

Warmbier’s father, Fred, lashed out at North Korea last week, telling a news conference, “there is no excuse for any civilised nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long”.

In a statement on Monday, Warmbier’s family said it believed the young man had found a peace of sorts after being flown home.

“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable – almost anguished,” it said. “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.”

Three more US citizens are currently being held by North Korea. Two were teachers at a Pyongyang university funded by overseas Christian groups, and the third a Korean-American pastor who was accused of espionage for the South.

The harsher tone adopted by the US following Warmbier’s death may get support from China, North Korea’s closest ally. “Pyongyang’s gross human rights violations will further deteriorate the strategic credit quality of North Korea as an asset for China that has occurred under the Kim Jong-un government,” said Thomas Byrne, president of the New York-based Korea Society.

On Wednesday, Tillerson and Mattis will welcome State Councillor Yang Jiechi and General Fang Fenghui, the PLA’s chief of staff, to the State Department. Susan Thornton, the US acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said this first edition of the new “US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue” would focus on North Korea.

“We continue to urge China to exert its unique leverage as North Korea’s largest trading partner, including by fully implementing all UN Security Council sanctions,” she said, referring to efforts to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

Additional reporting by Robert Delaney