CINCINNATI, Ohio — Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia college student who returned to the United States last week after 17 months of detention in North Korea, died Monday afternoon, his family said in a statement.
“It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home. Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20 p.m.,” the statement said.
The 22-year-old returned to the United States last week. Warmbier did not talk, move in any purposeful way or respond to verbal communication. In a news conference last Thursday, doctors called his condition “unresponsive wakefulness,” and revealed he had suffered significant brain damage during his imprisonment.
The North Korean government said botulism is to blame for Warmbier’s condition, but US doctors said they found no evidence of the illness.
The family expressed anger at his treatment in North Korea.
“We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”
Trip ends in allegations
Otto Warmbier was a University of Virginia student when he was detained in January 2016. He had signed up for a trip to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours travel group. It was to be a brief stay followed by a visit to Beijing.
But as he tried to depart from Pyongyang’s airport, he was stopped in security.
According to the North Korean government, Warmbier was detained because he had stolen a political poster from a restricted floor in his hotel. The next time the world saw Warmbier he was distraught, breaking down in front of Korean journalists in a video North Korea released in February 2016.
He admitted to the crime and begged for forgiveness. He pleaded to be released. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
His death led Young Pioneer Tours to announce it would no longer offer US citizens trips to North Korea. The group said it was denied requests to meet Warmbier or anyone who’d been in contact with him in Pyongyang, only receiving assurances that he was fine.
“The devastating loss of Otto Warmbier’s life has led us to reconsider our position on accepting American tourists. There had not been any previous detainment in North Korea that has ended with such tragic finality and we have been struggling to process the result. Now, the assessment of risk for Americans visiting North Korea has become too high.”
How the US secured his release
Warmbier’s father last week praised the Trump administration for bringing his son home. Fred Warmbier appeared critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Otto’s detention, saying the family heeded the US government’s initial advice to take a low profile “without result.”
After being briefed on the situation, Trump directed Tillerson to take appropriate measures to secure the release of American hostages there, a senior State Department official told CNN. Tillerson began the effort and routinely updated the President.
Then, on June 6, State Department special representative Joseph Yun learned of Warmbier’s deteriorating health in a meeting with North Korean UN Mission Ambassador Pak Kil-yon in New York City, the senior State Department official said.
Yun went to North Korea on June 12 with a medical team to secure Warmbier’s release, the official said. Yun and two doctors visited Warmbier that morning, marking the first time the United States was able to confirm his status since he was sentenced in March 2016. Yun immediately demanded that Warmbier be released on humanitarian grounds and arrangements were made for him to leave.
He was evacuated the next day and reunited with his family in Cincinnati.
“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13 he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished,” the family’s statement said.
“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.”