The family of former North Korean hostage Otto Warmbier blasted the Obama administration for its handling of his plight in a press conference on Thursday, as his doctors spoke of extensive brain damage and appeared to dismiss Pyongyang’s claims he was felled by botulism.
“He shows no signs of understanding language or responding to verbal commands,” neurologist Dr. Daniel Kanter said of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier. The doctor described his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.”
The University of Cincinnati Medical Center said he was in stable condition but suffering from a “severe neurological injury.”
“I’m proud of Otto, and the courage he showed by going to North Korea,” Otto’s father Fred Warmbier said at a press conference on Thursday, wearing the same jacket Otto wore when he appeared in a North Korean courtroom. He spoke without wife Cindy at his side because he said she stayed at the hospital with their son.
He praised Otto’s “adventurous side” and said it was “tough to process” how his son was treated by the North Korean regime.
“The fact that he was taken and treated this way is horrible. They’re brutal and they’re terroristic. We see the results of their actions with Otto,” he said. Warmbier made it clear he does not believe North Korea’s explanation of botulism combined with a sleeping pill for Otto’s condition.
“I don’t know what being in shock is, but I’m pretty sure I was,” Fred Warmbier said when asked how he took the news from North Korea’s government that Otto was in a coma. Although the North Koreans say Otto became comatose immediately after he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly stealing some propaganda signs from a hotel, his family was only notified of his condition last week.
“There is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long,” he said. In response to a reporter’s question, he stressed that “nobody has seen Otto since March of 2016.”
He also spoke of feeling “relief that Otto is now home in the arms of those who love him” mixed with “anger that he was so brutally treated for so long.”
Fred Warmbier thanked Ohio Senator Rob Portman for his help with bringing Otto home and said the family received “a very nice phone call” from President Donald Trump on Wednesday night. He said the president called to find out “how Cindy and I were doing, and wanted to know about Otto.”
“It was a really nice conversation. It was kind, and it was, ‘Are you taking care of yourself?’ and ‘We worked hard, and I’m sorry this is the outcome.’ He told me a little bit about Secretary Tillerson and Joe Yun, and they teamed up and made things happen. He was very candid. It was a nice conversation,” he said.
“To be honest with you, I had avoided conversations with him, because to what end?” he added. “I’m dealing with my son. This is about Otto. But I did take the call, and it was gracious, and it was nice, and it felt good, and I thank him for that.”
“We are extremely grateful for their efforts and concern,” he said of Portman and the Trump administration.
Later, he made it clear basketball star Dennis Rodman’s visit to North Korea had nothing to do with his son’s release, as many in the media have speculated. Warmbier said he could “care less” about Rodman’s trip. He credited tough negotiations from the current State Department for securing his son’s release, predicting that the full story of why Pyongyang released Otto will never be known to the outside world.
Mr. Warmbier was strongly critical of the Obama administration’s handling of his son’s case, however.
“When Otto was first taken, we were advised by the past administration to take a low profile while they worked to obtain his release. We did so, without result,” he said.
“Earlier this year, Cindy and I decided the time for strategic patience was over, and we made a few media appearances and traveled to Washington to meet with Ambassador Joe Yun at the State Department,” he continued. “It is my understanding that Ambassador Yun and his team, at the direction of the president, aggressively pursued resolution of the situation. They have our thanks for bringing Otto home.”
Asked by a reporter if he felt the Obama administration should have done more to help, Warmbier replied, “I think the results speak for themselves.”
“We’ve been to Washington, D.C. over a dozen times. We met everyone in the past administration from John Kerry to the Swedish ambassador, Sternloff, who lives in Pyongyang. He came in town, we met his aide when he came in town. We’ve met our senators, our congressmen. We’ve worked with Governor Richardson,” he said, referring to former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“Those were our efforts. We relied on this false premise that they would treat Otto fairly and would let him go,” Warmbier said. “Otto was held as a war criminal. They termed his confinement as a war criminal.”
“We did what we could. We tried to stay low. We were advised that it was important that you don’t upset the North Koreans. We followed that logic. There came a time that that doesn’t seem to have any impact. So we went public with an interview on Tucker Carlson’s show, and then did a couple of written pieces, and then very quickly we have Otto home,” he said.
Asked if he had ever been granted a face-to-face interview with President Obama, Warmbier said, “Oh, never, never. Absolutely not. No.”
Warmbier was also highly critical of extreme-tourism operations like the one his son patronized, Young Pioneer Tours.
“The North Koreans lure Americans to travel to North Korea via tour groups run out of China, who advertise slick ads on the Internet claiming no American ever gets detained off of our tours, and this is a safe place to go. So Otto’s a young thrill-seeking great kid who was going to be in that part of the world for a college experience and said ‘Hey, I’ve had some friends who have done this, I’d like to do this.’ So we agreed to let him do that.”
“They lure Americans, and then they take them hostage, and then they do things to them,” he warned. “That’s what happened to my son.”