AP Diplomatic Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) – North Korea has released Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was serving a 15-year prison term with hard labor for alleged anti-state acts, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday.
The U.S. announcement that came as former NBA player Dennis Rodman was paying a return visit to Pyongyang.
“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. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.”
The Washington Post, citing Warmbier’s parents, reported that he had been medically evacuated from North Korea in a coma, and was due to arrive home in Cincinnati on Tuesday evening. The report said he had been a coma for more than a year, since shortly after his last public appearance at his trial in Pyongyang in March 2016.
The Associated Press could not immediately confirm that information. Warmbier’s family did not respond to calls seeking comment.
The statement by Tillerson, which he later read Tuesday morning at a congressional hearing, offered no other details and made no mention of Rodman’s visit. Tillerson said the department would have no further comment on Warmbier and his condition, citing privacy concerns.
But he noted that the State Department is continuing “to have discussions” with North Korea about the release of other three American citizens who are jailed there.
A North Korean foreign ministry official said Warmbier was released and left the country Tuesday morning.
The official, who spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because no formal statement had been released, said he could not provide further details.
It was not immediately clear if Rodman’s visit to North Korea was purely coincidental with Warmbier’s release. Rodman has traveled to the isolated nation four times previously and is one of few people to have met both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump. Speaking to reporters in Beijing before his arrival in Pyongyang on Tuesday, he said that the issue of several Americans detained by North Korea is “not my purpose right now.”
In March 2016, North Korea’s highest court sentenced Warmbier to 15 years in prison with hard labor for subversion as he tearfully confessed that he had tried to steal a propaganda banner.
Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia undergraduate, was convicted and sentenced in a one-hour trial in North Korea’s Supreme Court.
The U.S. government condemned the sentence and accused North Korea of using such American detainees as political pawns.
The North Korean court held that Warmbier had committed a crime “pursuant to the U.S. government’s hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist.”
North Korea regularly accuses Washington and Seoul of sending spies to overthrow its government to enable the U.S.-backed South Korean government to take control of the Korean Peninsula.
Before his trial, Warmbier had said he tried to steal a propaganda banner as a trophy for an acquaintance who wanted to hang it in her church. That would be grounds in North Korea for a subversion charge. He identified the church as Friendship United Methodist Church. Meshach Kanyion, pastor of the church in Wyoming, declined to comment Wednesday.
North Korea announced Warmbier’s arrest in late January 2016, saying he committed an anti-state crime with “the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” Warmbier had been staying at the Yanggakdo International Hotel. It is common for sections of tourist hotels to be reserved for North Korean staff and off-limits to foreigners.
In a tearful statement made before his trial, Warmbier told a gathering of reporters in Pyongyang he was offered a used car worth $10,000 if he could get a propaganda banner and was also told that if he was detained and didn’t return, $200,000 would be paid to his mother in the form of a charitable donation.
Warmbier said he accepted the offer because his family was “suffering from very severe financial difficulties.”
Warmbier also said he had been encouraged by the university’s “Z Society,” which he said he was trying to join. The magazine of the university’s alumni association describes the Z Society as a “semi-secret ring society” founded in 1892 that conducts philanthropy, puts on honorary dinners and grants academic awards.
Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said in a statement that Tillerson had confirmed to him Warmbier’s release. He said that over the past 18 months, Warmbier’s family has “had to endure more than any family should have to bear.” He said Warmbier’s sentence was “unnecessary and appalling.”
In the past, North Korea has held out until senior U.S. officials or statesmen came to personally bail out detainees, all the way up to former President Bill Clinton, whose visit in 2009 secured the freedom of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling.
In November 2014, U.S. spy chief James Clapper went to Pyongyang to bring home Matthew Miller, who had ripped up his visa when entering the country and was serving a six-year sentence on an espionage charge, and Korean-American missionary Kenneth Bae, who had been sentenced to 15 years for alleged anti-government activities.
Jeffrey Fowle, another U.S. tourist from Ohio detained for six months at about the same time as Miller, was released just before that and sent home on a U.S. government plane. Fowle left a Bible in a local club hoping a North Korean would find it, which is considered a criminal offense in North Korea.
AP reporters Josh Lederman and Matthew Penningotn in Washington and Eric Talmadge in Pyongyang, North Korea, contributed to this report.
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