Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced on Tuesday that North Korea released a University of Virginia student who had been detained in North Korea since January 2016, but the 22-year-old remains in a coma.
The U.S. secured the release of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, who is now “en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family,” Tillerson said in the announcement. “Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained.”
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It remains unclear why North Korea agreed to release him.
He was detained at Pyongyang airport in January 2016 when he was en route to studying abroad in Hong Kong for a week. North Korea accused Warmbier of anti-state acts for attempting to remove a propaganda poster in a hotel and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for the crime.
The country categorized it as “hostile acts against the state.”
According to the Washington Post, Warmbier fell into a coma soon after his March trial. He caught a case of botulism — food poisoning from bacteria — and never woke up from the sleeping pill he took. North Korea provided these details of Warmbier’s story, but “out of respect for the privacy” of Warmbier and his family, Tillerson declined to discuss the Cincinnati native’s medical condition.
The other three citizens — two affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology and one from Virginia — were detained within the past year, though Warmbier was held the longest of the four citizens so far.
“Our son is coming home,” Fred Warmbier told The Washington Post after the announcement. “At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight.”
Warmbier’s parents later released a statement after receiving an update that their son is on a medevac flight to the United States and remains in a coma.
“We have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” his parents wrote. “We learned of this only one week ago. We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea.”
His release comes on the same day that retired, controversial basketball player Dennis Rodman is visiting the country. Rodman previously said he hoped to do “something pretty positive” in North Korea and that he wanted to “open a door” to the country.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) issued a statement in response to the Ohioan’s release and requested in it for everyone to respect Warmbier’s and his family’s privacy.
“My first priority will be continuing to support Otto, his parents and family, whose strength and love of family inspire me every time I speak with them,” Brown wrote. “North Korea’s despicable actions in detaining and holding Otto were unacceptable and must be condemned. We must continue working to free all Americans who are being held by North Korea.”