Otto Warmbier, the American student imprisoned by North Korea for 17 months and freed last week in a coma, died on Monday afternoon, according to a statement by his family.
The 22-year-old University of Virginia student died at 2:20 p.m. on Monday “surrounded by his loving family,” said the statement, which was signed by Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, and released by the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Warmbier was receiving treatment.
North Korean authorities detained Warmbier in March 2016 as he visited the isolated, authoritarian state as a tourist. Soon afterward, the country’s high court accused him of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel, and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor for crimes against the state.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier received no information about their son’s condition while he was in detention. Last Wednesday, he was medically evacuated to the U.S.; on Thursday, North Korea said that it released him “on humanitarian grounds.” Doctors in Cincinnati declared that he had extensive loss of brain tissue, and was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness.”
“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,” said the Warmbiers’ statement.
“Although we would never hear his voice again, within a day the countenance of his face changed — he was at peace,” it continued. “He was home and we believe he could sense that.”
Pyongyang said Warmbier fell into a coma after he contracted botulism and took a sleeping pill soon after his sentencing. Yet U.S. doctors have cast doubt on the explanation, and Warmbier’s parents lashed out at the isolated state.
“There’s no meaning here,” Fred Warmbier told Fox News last week. “This is a rogue, pariah regime. They’re terrorists. They’re brutal. There’s no sense to anything here.”
The reasons for Warmbier’s detention, the cause of his coma, and the circumstances of his release remain unclear.
“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,” the Warmbier family said in the Monday statement. “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.”
Warmbier was the 2013 salutatorian at Wyoming High School in his hometown of Wyoming, Ohio.
Analysts say North Korea often attempts to use foreign detainees to wrest outside concessions. Yet Warmbier’s treatment has only deepened animosity between Pyongyang and Washington, which spiked in recent months amid a game of brinkmanship between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Trump.
Warmbier’s death could chill efforts to restart a dialogue with North Korea. An academic who serves as an adviser to South Korea’s newly elected president, Moon Jae-in, cited the Warmbier case as one reason that Moon was moving cautiously with Pyongyang.
“Otto Warmbier had this tragic return. Therefore the atmosphere in Washington is extremely hostile against North Korea,‘’ said the professor, Moon Chung-in, who was speaking at New York’s Asia Society on Monday morning before Warmbier’s death was announced. “With this kind of behavior, it would be extremely difficult for President Moon to consider going to Pyongyang or have any meaningful interaction with North Korea.‘’
Trump offered condolences to the Warmbier family in a statement on Monday. “There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life,” he said. “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,” he continued. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
Three American citizens remain in detention in North Korea: Kim Sang Dok, an accounting instructor at a university in Pyongyang, who was detained in April for unknown reasons; Kim Hak-song, another worker at the university; and Kim Dong Chul, 62, who is serving a 10-year term for alleged espionage.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle decried North Korea’s treatment of Warmbier. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) condemned the country’s “despicable actions in detaining and holding Otto.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) called for a travel ban to the country. “This is a regime that regularly kidnaps foreign citizens and keeps 120,000 North Koreans in barbaric gulags,” he said, referring to North Korea’s network of political prison camps.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said: “We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment, and demand the release of three other Americans who have been illegally detained.”
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in New York contributed to this report.
4:30 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional U.S. reaction, corrects number of Americans held.
3:05 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with staff reporting, Trump statement.
This article was originally posted at 1:45 p.m.