CINCINNATI — Otto Warmbier is back home in Cincinnati, but as people in the community awaited news about his health while he was treated at the hospital Wednesday, they were in a familiar place: feeling helpless, wishing there was something they could do.
For nearly a year and a half, since the University of Virginia student was detained in North Korea after a tourist trip, they have been praying for his return. But the news that the 22-year-old was in a coma, and had been for more than a year, left the community still very much on edge.
It felt, a friend said, as though everyone was holding their breath. Friends and neighbors have tied blue and white ribbons to trees in his close-knit home town of Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of this city. They hoped for some kind of reassurance from the family that Warmbier would be all right — that he would be the same friendly, intellectually curious, athletic, studious Otto they have always known.
University of Cincinnati Medical Center officials said that they could not provide an update about his health but that his parents had indicated they planned to speak publicly about their son at his former high school on Thursday.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who became close with Fred and Cindy Warmbier as he advocated for their son’s release, was with them at the airport Tuesday night when the medical transport plane landed. “It was very moving to see Otto reunited with his family,” he said.
The parents and their two younger children boarded the plane to see him, while Portman and others waited nearby in the terminal. “It was an emotional moment, obviously, after 18 months of uncertainty and the last week of just shock that he was in such bad shape,” he said. “But this family is remarkably strong. Over the past 18 months they’ve had to go through something that no family should have to bear.” He asked people to “continue to support them, lift them up in prayer.”
Wyoming City Schools said in a written statement: “We are heartened to hear of reports of the release of Otto Warmbier. Otto and his entire family are in our thoughts.”
As those close to him waited for news about his health, people nationally and internationally wondered how his condition — and the lack of information about it for so long — would affect tense relations between the United States and North Korea.
Portman, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he hopes it serves as a wake-up call. “There are still three Americans there,” he said. “I hope it will embolden the international community to increase pressure on this regime, particularly from China.”
From Warmbier’s arrest to the semblance of a trial to the sentence of 15 years of hard labor, the North Koreans’ behavior has been outrageous, Portman said. But when the North Koreans stopped consular access and did not allow Warmbier to come home last March after he fell into a coma, “that’s a complete failure to recognize basic human values,” Portman said. “This reminds us, if there was every any doubt, about the nature of the regime.”
Bill Richardson, the former U.S. energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations, who has worked in the past to secure the release of people detained in North Korea, said Wednesday that he had not heard in any of his discussions with North Korean officials that Warmbier was ill or in a coma.
“I believe there’s a coverup going on regarding Otto’s condition,” Richardson said.
He questioned why the North Koreans stopped allowing consular access to Warmbier and why the country didn’t report his medical condition earlier. He was also dubious of their explanation about his condition. “The excuse of botulism and a sleeping pill to cause the coma I believe is not only implausible but highly questionable.”
People will be watching to see how the Trump administration responds, he said. “What will they do if it’s obvious the North Koreans were engaged in a possible coverup?” The administration might consider adding more sanctions, he said, asking the Chinese to pressure North Korea into disclosing what happened. Perhaps the episode could open up a dialogue of some kind between the two countries, he said.
A spokeswoman for the White House did not immediately return a message seeking comment Wednesday.
Portman praised the State Department’s top official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, for his role in securing Warmbier’s release.
Former basketball player Dennis Rodman arrived in Pyongyang for his fifth visit there on the same day Warmbier was flown out of the country. Richardson said that the timing might not be coincidental and that the regime may have a message for Rodman to convey to U.S. leaders.
He said Rodman has been trying to go there for some time and said it may be that the visit was approved because “they know they screwed up with Otto — they know they did something really stupid.”