American officials have confirmed that the release of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in a labor camp in North Korea for “hostile acts” against the communist state, resulted from high-level diplomacy and was “a big priority” for President Donald Trump.
President Trump has placed the release of U.S. citizens wrongfully imprisoned abroad high on the list of State Department responsibilities, resulting in the release of at least two other Americans in his young presidency: Sandy Phan-Gillis, “deported” from China after being arrested for alleged espionage, and Aya Hijazi, imprisoned while running a charity in Egypt.
“Bringing Otto home was a big priority for the President,” White House deputy press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday. “He worked very hard and very closely with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in order to do that. And right now, his thoughts and prayers are with his family.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had also confirmed Warmbier’s release on Tuesday. “The Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” he told congressmen during a scheduled hearing. “He is on his way, en route home, to be reunited with his family. We continue our discussions with the North Korean regime regarding the release of the three other American citizens that have been detained.”
The State Department also clarified that professional basketball player Dennis Rodman, currently on his fifth visit to North Korea, did not play any role in Warmbier’s release. Rodman, who enjoys a personal friendship with dictator Kim Jong-un, had previously received thanks from a former North Korean hostage, the Christian missionary Kenneth Bae, for bringing attention to his abduction.
Reuters reports that Warmbier landed in Cincinnati on Tuesday following diplomatic talks between North Korea and State Department special envoy on North Korea Joseph Yun.
Yun, the outlet reports, made a plea in Pyongyang for Warmbier’s freedom, arguing that he should be freed on “humanitarian grounds.” Yun also received confirmation that the three other U.S. citizens currently in North Korean custody – academics Kim Sang Duk and Kim Hak-song, and businessman Kim Dong Chul – are in stable, healthy conditions. Talks to liberate these U.S. citizens are ongoing, according to the State Department.
Warmbier is currently in a coma and has reportedly been in a comatose state since shortly after his conviction for crimes against dictator Kim Jong-un in 2016. In a statement released by parents Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the couple confirmed their son “is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” but that the North Korean government did not update them on his status, and they only found out about the coma a week ago.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea,” the Warmbiers added.
The Warmbiers had condemned the Obama administration for treating their case like “an unwanted distraction” and felt emboldened to “speak up” now that President Trump had prioritized cases like Otto’s.
Reuters cites anonymous State Department sources to report that Yun had been meeting with North Korean officials since May to discuss all Americans imprisoned in North Korea. The outlet cites the New York Times noting that some American officials believe Warmbier was beaten during his imprisonment.
The North Korean officials involved reportedly told their American counterparts that Warmbier is suffering from botulism and fell into a coma after being given a sleeping pill in March 2016.
Warmbier, 22, appeared on North Korean television shortly before he fell into a coma, confessing to the “crime” of taking down a communist poster and condemning the United States for “luring” him into committing the “crime.”
The regime sentenced him to 15 years in a labor camp for his crime. Warmbier was in the country as a tourist with Young Pioneer Tours, a Chinese – but largely Western-run – tour company that sells tours to North Korea and exploits impressionable young customers less likely to consider the risks of traveling to a repressive communist country or the moral implications of funding the North Korean regime.