North Korea Releases Imprisoned US College Student

Otto Warmbier was accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor

Otto Warmbier in March 2016. — REUTERS
Jun 13, 2017 at 11:01 AM ET

Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American whose trip to North Korea ended in a 15-year prison sentence in 2016, has been released and is on his way back to the United States, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced on Tuesday.

“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in a statement.

The statement provided few other details, but Warmbier’s family told the Washington Post that he was medically evacuated after being in a coma for more than a year. They were told by North Korea that the coma came after he was given a sleeping pill while suffering from botulism. The veracity of this claim, like most statements from North Korea, remains questionable.

Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested in January 2016 as he was supposed to board a plane flying out of North Korea. A few months later, in March, he confessed to stealing a propaganda poster on the wall of his hotel. He claimed that this was part of an American plot against North Korea and begged for forgiveness for his “severe crime.” Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.

At the time, the United States didn’t have many options to help Warmbier. As it clearly states on the State Department website, American citizens are strongly urged not to travel to North Korea, where they can be detained for any reason or no reason at all, and there’s little the U.S. can do about it other than negotiate for their release.