An American university student held prisoner in North Korea for 17 months and said to be in a coma, has been medically evacuated from the country after a rare visit from a high-level US official.
Otto Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student, was on his way back to the US on Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.
The release came after Joseph Yun, the State Department’s special envoy on North Korea, travelled to Pyongyang and demanded Warmbier’s freedom on “humanitarian grounds,” a US official said.
“Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” Warmbier’s parents said in a statement. “We learned of this only one week ago. We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalised and terrorised by the regime in North Korea.”
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Warmbier was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in March last year for trying to steal an item with a propaganda slogan, according to North Korean media.
The family said it was told by North Korean officials, through contacts with American envoys, that Warmbier fell ill sometime after his March 2016 trial and lapsed into a coma after taking a sleeping pill, US media reported.
US media also quoted a senior US official as saying Washington recently received intelligence reports that Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten in custody.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said, “Bringing Otto home was a big priority for the president.”
The State Department is continuing to discuss three other detained Americans with North Korea, Tillerson said.
In rare high-level contacts, Yun met senior North Korean officials in Oslo in May, where it was agreed that Swedish officials in Pyongyang would be allowed to see all four American detainees, a State Department official said.
Yun then met North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations and was told about Warmbier’s “condition,” the official said.
Tillerson consulted with Trump, and arrangements were made for Yun and a medical team to travel to Pyongyang.
Yun visited Warmbier with two doctors on Monday and demanded his release, the official said. The North Koreans agreed and he was flown out on Tuesday.
A University of Cincinnati Medical Centre spokeswoman said Warmbier would be treated there.