TOKYO — North Korea said Thursday that it released Otto Warmbier “on humanitarian grounds,” its first public statement about the University of Virginia student who went to North Korea as a healthy young man and left in a coma.
Warmbier is now being treated at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, in his home town, after being evacuated on a U.S. military medical plane on Tuesday.
His parents have said he is “in bad shape” and that they will hold a news conference Thursday morning to talk more about their son’s condition.
North Korea’s state-run news agency said a court allowed Warmbier to return home “on humanitarian grounds,” despite the fact that he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor after he attempted to take a poster from his hotel.
North Korea has no independent judicial process, and the court decision — if it happened — was likely to have been ordered by the regime, just like his initial conviction.
Many analysts are calling for Kim Jong Un’s regime to be held responsible for mistreatment of Warmbier.
Warmbier, who is now 22, went to North Korea on a New Year’s Eve trip run by Young Pioneer Tours at the end of 2015. The company markets itself to young travelers by offering “budget tours to destinations your mother wants you to stay away from.”
In the early hours of New Year’s Day, Warmbier apparently tried to steal a propaganda poster lauding the North Korean regime from the hotel where his tour group was staying. He was detained as he tried to board his flight out the following day.
He was made to deliver a bizarre statement to the cameras in February, in which he confessed to a “very severe and preplanned crime” and said his aim was “to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.”
His explanation involved a CIA plot, a secret university society and church members — tales that analysts said appeared to have been concocted by his captors. Previous detainees in North Korea described having such statements dictated to them.
He was cleanshaven and appeared to be in good health.
At a one-hour trial in March, Warmbier was charged with subversion, a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy” toward North Korea, according to state media reports. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
Sometime in March, Warmbier reportedly fell into a coma — but he was kept in North Korea for another 14 months. North Korean representatives only disclosed his condition to American diplomats at a meeting on June 6.
They explained the young man’s situation by saying he had contracted botulism and been giving a sleeping pill, from which he never recovered — a version of events that doctors and analysts are viewing with deep skepticism.
The news of his comatose state triggered a frantic effort to get Warmbier out. The State Department’s top official on North Korea, Joseph Yun, traveled to Pyongyang on Monday to bring out Warmbier.
Warmbier left North Korea just a few hours after the arrival of Dennis Rodman, the eccentric former basketball star. But the State Department said the events were not related, and Rodman denied on his way to Pyongyang that he was on a mission to free the four Americans then being detained.
Three other men remain in custody in North Korea, and Yun was able to see them during his visit, according to people with knowledge of the meetings.