US secretary of state Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that North Korea had released Otto Warmbier, an American serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts, as reports emerged that the 22-year-old has been in a coma for as long as a year.
Tillerson said that Warmbier was on his way back to the US to be reunited with his family. He said in a statement that the state department secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of Donald Trump, adding that the department was continuing to discuss three other detained Americans with North Korea.
Tillerson did not address Warmbier’s medical condition, but the Washington Post reported that Warmbier was currently in a coma and had been for upwards of a year. Warmbier’s family told the Post that, according to North Korean officials, the 22-year-old contracted a case of botulism shortly after his trial and was given a sleeping pill from which he never woke up.
Warmbier’s parents said they only learned of their son’s condition last week when the return was negotiated.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told the Post on Tuesday morning after Otto Warmbier was evacuated. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
In a statement to media Fred and his wife Cindy added, “We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North [Korea]. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”
Warmbier is being medically evacuated through the US military base in Sapporo, Japan.
Warmbier is a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati. He was sentenced in March 2016 after a televised tearful public confession to trying to steal a propaganda banner.
The parents of the American college student who was medically evacuated from North Korea after more than a year in captivity said their son has been “brutalized” by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime” in North Korea, Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement to The Associated Press.
A senior US official said there had been intelligence reports in recent weeks that Otto Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in custody, The New York Times reported.
The official, who was not authorized to discuss intelligence and spoke anonymously, said there also had been concerns that the 23-year-old had died as a result of the beatings.
Warmbier was reported to be in a coma while on his way back to the US, where he will be reunited with his parents in Cincinnati.
He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 after confessing to stealing a propaganda banner from an off-limits area of a hotel.