Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old college student, who was returned to the US in a coma last week after being held in a North Korean jail for 17 months, has died in a Cincinnati hospital, his parents announced on Monday 19 June.
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour after being arrested at Pyongyang airport in January 2016. He was accused of allegedly taking a propaganda poster from his hotel room, while staying there as a part of an organised tour.
He was medically evacuated from North Korea last Tuesday and flown back to the US where doctors at the University of Cincinnati medical centre treated him and concluded Warmbier had endured severe neurological injuries due to a cardiopulmonary arrest, and was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.” Scans showed extensive loss in all regions of the 22-year-old’s brain.
At a press conference, just days before Otto’s death, medical director of the neuroscience intensive care unit at the University of Cincinnati, Dr Daniel Kanter, said, “[Otto] shows no sign of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or awareness of his surroundings. He has not spoken, he has not engaged in any purposeful movements or behaviour.”
At his trial, which supposedly lasted less than an hour, University of Virginia student wept at his sentencing, saying: “I have made the worst mistake of my life.”
North Korea’s first official statement came shortly after his return to the US, saying he was released for humanitarian reasons. The state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), said he had been sentenced to hard labour but did not comment on his medical condition.
According to The Washington Post, Warmbier’s parents were told their son was given a sleeping pill soon after his trial in March of last year but never woke up, and that he may have been infected by botulism in the North Korean jail.
Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, said he did not believe North Korea’s explanation that the coma resulted from botulism and a sleeping pill. US doctors also confirmed they found no evidence of active botulism, a rare and serious illness caused by contaminated food or a dirty wound.
He was “terrorised and brutalised” during the 17 months of detention and had been in a coma for more than a year, stated his father. Doctors said his injuries are consistent with respiratory arrest cutting off oxygen to the brain, but the cause is still unknown.
His parents released a statement shortly after his death: “When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on 13 June, he was unable to speak, unable to see and react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable- almost anguished. 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.”
US President Donald Trump offered his condolences to Warmbier’s parents saying: “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.”
Tensions are now growing between Washington and Pyongyang, as three Americans remain in custody. A report in The Financial Times states that two were arrested earlier this year, while the third, Kim Dong-chul was detained in October 2015 and sentenced to 10 years of hard labour on espionage charges.
The US government accuses North Korea of using detainees as political pawns and bargaining chips. Meanwhile North Korea accuses Washington and South Korea of sending spies to overthrow its government.
Former US ambassador to the United Nations and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, said there should be an investigation into what happened to Warmbier leading to this “tragic situation.”
Richardson, credited the Department of State with securing Warmbier’s return but continued by saying that a forceful response from the US government would be required, “if it’s determined that there was a cover-up and Otto’s condition was not disclosed and he didn’t get proper treatment.”