Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was recently released from North Korea after spending 17 months in detention, died yesterday (June 19), his family said.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, said in a statement that their 22-year-old son had “completed his journey home” and “was at peace” when he died at 2.20 pm at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center where he had been receiving treatment.
Warmbier traveled to Pyongyang on a five-day tour organized by a China-based company, Young Pioneer Tours (paywall), in December 2015, but was detained at the airport when he was about to leave the country over an alleged attempt to steal a propaganda poster in his hotel. In March 2016, he was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor. Last week North Korea released Warmbier, citing “humanitarian grounds.”
Warmbier had been in a coma for more than a year. North Korean diplomats claimed that he slipped into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill, but Warmbier’s doctor said there was no sign of botulism in his system.
“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,” Warmbier’s parents wrote. “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.”
Young Pioneer Tours, the travel agency that took Warmbier to Pyongyang, announced June 20 on Facebook that it is no longer accepting Americans on its North Korean tours. “The way his detention was handled was appalling, and a tragedy like this must never be repeated,” said the company.
The death is likely to exacerbate relations between the US and North Korea, whose leader, Kim Jong-un, has threatened to attack the US with nuclear weapons in recent months.
US president Donald Trump issued a statement regarding Warmbier’s death. “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. The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that the US holds North Korea “accountable” for Warmbier’s imprisonment, and demanded Pyongyang free three other Americans, all of them of Korean ancestry, currently being held there.