WASHINGTON: Otto Warmbier, a US university student held captive in North Korea for 17 months, has been released, but a former US official said on Tuesday he is in a coma and in urgent need of medical care.
Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was on his way back to the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States, said Bill Richardson, a veteran former diplomat and politician who has played a role in past negotiations with North Korea, said after speaking to Warmbiers parents.
The family said they were told by North Korean officials, through contacts with American envoys, that Warmbier fell ill from botulism sometime after his March 2016 trial and lapsed into a coma after taking a sleeping pill, the Washington Post reported.
In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma, Richardson, whose Centre for Global Engagement had directly sought Warmbiers release with the North Korean government, said in a statement.
Tillerson, at a US Senate hearing on Tuesday, declined to comment on Warmbier’s condition. A person who answered the phone at Warmbiers family’s Ohio residence said: No comment, thank you and hung up.
Warmbiers release came as former US basketball star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea on Tuesday, returning to the increasingly isolated nuclear-armed country where he has previously met leader Kim Jong Un.
US officials appeared to brush aside any speculation of a connection between Rodmans controversial visit and Warmbiers release.
A senior administration official said the Trump administration did not authorize Rodmans trip. “This is him freelancing,” the official said.
The State Department is continuing to discuss the situation of three other detained Americans with North Korea, Tillerson said.
Since taking office in January, US President Donald Trump has faced growing tensions with North Korea, which has conducted a series of ballistic missile tests in defiance of US and international sanctions.
Warmbier was detained in January 2016 and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in March last year for trying to steal an item with a propaganda slogan, according to North Korean media.