Otto Warmbier, a student who spent over 17 months held hostage in North Korea, is on his way back home to the United States. That’s the extent of the good news, though, because he’s in a coma and reports indicate he has been in that condition for more than a year.
The Reason North Korea Detained Warmbier
Warmbier went to North Korea at the end of 2015 through Young Pioneer Tours. He was one member of a group that was on a five-day tour of the nation, and they were all scheduled to leave on January 2, 2016. However, the North Korean government alleges that Warmbier attempted to steal a banner with a political slogan from his hotel, and states that it has security footage of the incident.
The North Korean government deemed this a “hostile act” and arrested Warmbier at the airport on the day he was supposed to leave. Warmbier later made a video confession, although some question if he did so willingly or was coerced into it. He claims that he planned to steal the poster so he could trade it with another party for a $10,000 used car. He also said that if he stole the poster successfully, a secret University of Virginia club called the Z Society promised to let him join them, although one member of this club denied this.
In March of 2016, the North Korean government sentenced the 21-year-old to 15 years of hard labor. That same month is reportedly when Warmbier fell into a coma.
According to the North Korean government, Warmbier contracted botulism, a serious condition that can cause severe damage when untreated, including paralysis of the muscles that impacts the patient’s breathing. It also said that Warmbier took a sleeping pill one night, and this in combination with his condition led to him slipping into the coma.
It’s unknown if the North Korean government’s version of events is accurate. U.S. officials are waiting for doctors here in the States to evaluate Warmbier and get more information on what happened to him.
Warmbier was one of four U.S. hostages North Korea was holding captive, and during 2016, the U.S. government continually attempted to convince North Korea to allow the Swedish consulate to see those hostages. It also asked for the release of the hostages several times.
The Release of Warmbier
In February of 2017, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained the situation regarding Warmbier and the three other U.S. hostages held in North Korea. At this time, the North Korean government hadn’t released information about Warmbier’s condition.
President Trump instructed Tillerson to get the hostages released from North Korea. The situation developed over the next few months. Joseph Yun, State Department Special Representative, says he learned about Warmbier’s condition from North Korea during a meeting on June 6, 2017. That same week, the U.S. government let the family of Warmbier know that he was in a coma.
Yun made arrangements regarding the release of Warmbier, and on June 12, 2017, he and two doctors landed in North Korea to check on the young man. On June 13, the United States evacuated Warmbier from North Korea and put him in route to Ohio to receive medical treatment and be reunited with his family.