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Otto Warmbier dies days after release from North Korean detention

Fred and Cindy Warmbier say their son, Otto, has died, days after he was medically evacuated from North Korea. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Kim Kwang Hyon/The Washington Post)

Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea for nearly a year and a half, died Monday afternoon, days after he returned home in a coma, his parents announced.

Warmbier, 22, had been medically evacuated last week and was being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, did not specify the cause of death.

But they made clear in a written statement that they blamed North Korea for what happened. Their son was arrested in January 2016 at the end of a brief tourist visit to the isolated country.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today,” the Warmbiers said.

Warmbier’s death was mourned by his wide circle of friends and by complete strangers, and it intensified political reaction to his detention, with outraged critics calling it murder.

“There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life,” President Trump said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him.

“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.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement: “Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime. In the final year of his life, he lived the nightmare in which the North Korean people have been trapped for 70 years: forced labor, mass starvation, systematic cruelty, torture, and murder.

“North Korea is threatening its neighbors, destabilizing the Asia-Pacific region, and rapidly developing the technology to strike the American homeland with nuclear weapons. Now it has escalated to brutalizing Americans, including three other citizens currently imprisoned in North Korea. The United States of America cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers.”

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement that “Otto is dead because of Kim Jong-un’s repressive, murderous regime,” and that North Korea “must be held accountable for their continued barbaric behavior.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) also said North Korea must be held accountable for the “murder.” 

Warmbier’s death could push Congress or the Trump administration to restrict or ban Americans from traveling to North Korea.

Reps. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) have introduced the North Korea Travel Control Act in the House, which would require Americans who want to travel to North Korea to obtain a license. There would be no licenses for tourists.

The Senate has been more reluctant to introduce restrictions on Americans — but Warmbier’s death might be the trigger that they need, analysts say.

Trump reacted to news that American student Otto Warmbier died only days after being released in a coma from 17 months of detention in North Korea. (Video: Reuters)

Separately, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has raised the prospect of the administration using an executive order to ban travel to North Korea.

“We have been evaluating whether we should put some type of travel visa restriction to North Korea,”  Tillerson told a House committee last week. “We haven’t come to a final conclusion, but we are considering it.”

On Monday, Tillerson issued a statement: “Today we received with deep sadness the news that Otto Warmbier has passed away.

“On behalf of the entire State Department and the United States government, I extend my condolences to the Warmbier family, and offer my prayers as they enter a time of grief no parent should ever know.

“We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment, and demand the release of three other Americans who have been illegally detained.”

They are Kim Dong-chul, a former Fairfax County, Va., resident, as well as Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, two Americans affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

Currently, the State Department “strongly warns” U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea, noting that going there puts them at risk of arrest and long-term detention in accordance with what North Korea calls “wartime law.”

Warmbier had gone to North Korea as a tourist on his way to Hong Kong for a study-abroad program, but was stopped when he tried to leave the country. After a sham trial, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for what North Korea called “hostile acts against the state.”

Undated video shows American student Otto Warmbier throwing snowballs in North Korea before his arrest for "committing hostile acts" against the North. (Video: Austin Warmbier)

Fred Warmbier said North Korea lures American tourists to the country with tour groups such as the one his son joined, Young Pioneer Tours, and then “they take them hostage.”

Young Pioneer Tours said after Warmbier’s death that it would no longer take American citizens to North Korea.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier had no news about their son during his detention after March of last year. He was not allowed consular visits, and it was not until this month that U.S. officials and the family were told that he had been in a coma for more than a year.

He was medically evacuated, landed in Cincinnati on Tuesday night and was rushed to the hospital.

Otto Warmbier has extensive loss of brain tissue, no obvious signs of trauma

On Thursday, doctors said Warmbier had extensive loss of brain tissue, and was in a state of unresponsive wakefulness.

That morning, Fred Warmbier denounced what he called the “pariah” regime that brutalized his son.

Otto Warmbier’s father denounces North Korea

Fred and Cindy Warmbier issued a statement Monday afternoon:

It is our sad duty to report that our son, Otto Warmbier, has completed his journey home.  Surrounded by his loving family, Otto died today at 2:20pm.
It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds. But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person.  You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched — Wyoming, Ohio and the University of Virginia to name just two — that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.
We would like to thank the wonderful professionals at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center who did everything they could for Otto. Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.
When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands. He looked very uncomfortable — almost anguished.  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.
We thank everyone around the world who has kept him and our family in their thoughts and prayers.   We are at peace and at home too.
Fred & Cindy Warmbier and Family

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who worked to try to free Warmbier, said in a statement Monday afternoon: “Otto Warmbier was such a promising young man. He was kind, generous and accomplished. He had all the talent you could ever ask for and a bright future ahead of him. His passing today is a loss for Ohio and for all of us. Jane and I are lifting up the Warmbier family in our prayers at this difficult time, and we are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of this remarkable young Ohioan.”

Gov. John Kasich (R) said in a written statement: “All Ohioans mourn the death of Otto Warmbier, a young man of exceptional spirit. Our prayers go out to his family, who have shown great strength and courage throughout this terrible ordeal. This horrendous situation further underscores the evil, oppressive nature of the North Korean regime that has such disregard for human life.”

Teresa Sullivan, president of U-Va., said by phone Monday afternoon: “It’s just such a waste of a promising young life. That’s very hard — that’s very hard to accept.

“I feel so sorry for his classmates and his fraternity brothers. He had many friends at the university, professors who taught him, I think everyone feels, very deeply, this loss.

“I think we always somewhere, deep down, thought he would come back to us and finish his degree with us.”

Otto Warmbier's 2013 speech as salutatorian at his graduation from Wyoming High School, in Wyoming, Ohio (Video: Courtesy of Fred and Cindy Warmbier)

Warmbier was much loved. He was homecoming king and captain of his high-school soccer team, an expert in underground rap music and economics, a thrift-store shopper who wore his selections, like a purplish-striped sweater under a plaid jacket, with a big, confident grin.

He was a top student at U-Va., with a scholarship designed for the most “intellectually curious” students, and that inquisitiveness led him to befriend strangers, have long talks with friends about big ideas, and travel abroad to places such as Ecuador and Cuba. He took care of friends and family, offering advice to his younger brother and sister, reminding his mother they should visit a relative who was sick, surprising friends with throwback jerseys, paintings, Hawaiian shirts and other thrift-store finds.

He was unusually disciplined, certain of his major and with his path to a career in finance mapped out early on; as a junior he already had enough credits to graduate, a summer at the London School of Economics completed, and a summer internship likely to lead to a job offer after graduation.

Last month, his classmates graduated from U-Va. without him.

Todd Siler, a teacher at Wyoming High School, said Monday that he saw two of Warmbier’s friends from the graduating class of 2013, of which he was salutatorian, earlier Monday. They had been to the hospital to see him, and came to school to see their friend’s name on the graduation walk; all the students have their name etched on a brick there. “Tough, tough moments today,” he said.

The Wyoming City Schools said in a statement Monday that they were deeply saddened by the loss of Warmbier: “The countless contributions he made to his school and community through his leadership, actions, and limitless enthusiasm will be felt far into the future.”

Siler said, “Otto just brought out the best in people.”

“In a short time he had an impact on so many people of all different walks of life. … I think that’s what makes his passing so hard — there aren’t enough people like that in this world. We lost a good one. We lost a great one.

“Otto was strong, such a strong kid,” Siler added. “His spirit touched everybody, and I want to believe that, despite the treatment that he experienced, that he was hanging on to come home. And he did that. He knew he was there and with family. … I think there was a part of him still left that understood that.

“He’s home. So it’s okay to let go.”

U-Va. student Otto Warmbier released from North Korea

FILE - In this Feb. 29, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. North Korea's highest court on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, sentenced Warmbier, who allegedly attempted to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted area of his hotel, to 15 years of hard labor in prison. (AP Photo/Kim Kwang Hyon, File)

Fifield reported from Tokyo. Staff writer Carol Morello contributed to this report.