American Freed By North Korea Is In A Coma

Otto Warmbier, and American being held by North Korea, is being freed but his release is marred by the revelation that he has been in a coma for much of that time:

WASHINGTON — Otto F. Warmbier, an American college student held prisoner in North Korea for more than a year, has been medically evacuated from the reclusive country in a coma and is on his way back to the United States, according to a statement from his parents.

“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. They said they were grateful their son would “finally be with people who love him.”

A senior American official said there had been intelligence reports in recent weeks that indicated Mr. Warmbier had been repeatedly beaten while in North Korean custody. The official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss intelligence and spoke anonymously, said there were concerns that Mr. Warmbier had died as a result of the beatings.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson issued a statement on Tuesday announcing the release of Mr. Warmbier, 23, who was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for trying to steal a propaganda poster in January 2016. People close to the negotiations that led to his release said that Mr. Warmbier was on his way from Japan to Anchorage, where the plane carrying him would refuel and continue on to Cincinnati, where his parents live.


“Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior,” Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio, said.

A senior aide to Mr. Portman said the senator had been working for months to try to help secure Mr. Warmbier’s release, consulting President Trump and Mr. Tillerson as well as John Kerry, the former secretary of state, and Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and a periodic negotiator with the North Korean government.

“North Korea’s despicable actions in detaining and holding Otto were unacceptable and must be condemned,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who added that he had closely followed Mr. Warmbier’s case. “We must continue working to free all Americans who are being held by North Korea.”

Mr. Warmbier visited North Korea on a group tour last year. He was about to board a flight home when he was detained. In video taken at the time of the trial, Mr. Warmbier appeared dazed and seemingly had to be carried by North Korean soldiers.

In a tearful news conference in Pyongyang last year, Mr. Warmbier said that he had stolen the poster because an acquaintance offered to give him a used car worth $10,000 in exchange for it. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” Mr. Warmbier said. It is unclear whether his statement was genuine or coerced.

Hours after video of the news conference emerged, the Obama administration announced broad new sanctions against North Korea.

In announcing his arrest in 2016, North Korean state news media said that Mr. Warmbier had visited the country with the intention of “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity.”

The State Department repeatedly warns Americans not to visit North Korea, which has detained a host of Americans over the years on a variety of charges. At least three other Americans remain in detention there

Warmbier was taken to a Japanese hospital after being released and will apparently be flown to the United States on a medical plane with sufficient equipment to treat him in-flight. As for how he ended up in a coma is obviously an issue of concern, and there’s no reason to believe the North Korean version of events until American doctors have had the opportunity to examine him. Given the passage of time, though, it may not be possible to determine if his coma is the result of some reaction to the drugs he was given to treat botulism or due to something else, such as physical abuse by the North Koreans.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Franklin says:

    How considerate of the North Koreans to release the guy they beat into a coma because he took a poster. Remember, Trump said he would be “honored” to meet Kim Jong Un, who is a “pretty smart cookie.”

  2. Stormy Dragon says:

    I guess I’m cold-hearted, but I have trouble mustering much sympathy for a college student who for some reason voluntarily put themselves at the mercy of the North Korean government and then discovered that’s a bad idea.

    I prefer to reserve it for the millions of people who are suffering similarly through no choice of their own.