American hostage freed by North Korea arrives home in a coma
It could have been worse. The North Koreans could have sent American college student Otto Warmbier home in a casket instead of in a coma.
The North Korean government freed Mr. Warmbier after convicting him 17 months ago of "hostile acts against the state." Warmbier was caught on tape removing a banner from his hotel containing a Communist Party slogan. He was arrested boarding his plane for the trip home. The government claims that Warmbier went into a coma 16 months ago after taking a sleeping pill while suffering from a bout of botulism.
"Otto has left North Korea. He is on Medivac flight on his way home. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016. We learned of this only one week ago," said Fred and Cindy Warmbier in a statement.
"We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korean. We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him."
Warmbier was detained in January 2016 at the airport in Pyongyang while on his way home. His parents say the University of Virginia student had been on a tour of the reclusive country.
North Korean authorities said they had security footage of him trying to steal a banner containing a political slogan that was hanging from the walls of his Pyongyang hotel.
That was used as evidence in his hour-long trial, during which North Korea accused him of committing "hostile acts" against the regime at the urging of a purported member of a church in his home state of Ohio, a secretive university organization and the CIA.
Warmbier was found guilty and sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years hard labor. It was the last time he was seen publicly.
Since last March, the US had been pressing North Korea to let Swedish officials see the four Americans, the senior State Department official told CNN. When the Swedes finally got the okay to visit, the North Koreans immediately asked for a meeting with Joe Yun, the US envoy in New York, when he was told about Otto Warmbier's condition.
In that meeting about a week ago, Yun was told that Warmbier had contracted botulism a year ago and went into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. US officials then urged those with the ability to persuade Pyongyang to ratchet up the pressure to get him released, said a source, who is familiar with the government's efforts.
A second senior State Department official said the US has not yet accepted the North Korean version of events in terms of the timing and cause of how Warmbier fell into a coma.
The North Koreans routinely torture their American hostages after convicting them of trumped up spying charges. So you can believe that Mr. Warmbier slipped into a coma after taking a sleeping pill or some overzealous, sadistic North Korean prison guard beat him to within an inch of his life. The fact that it took a year for them to tell us about his coma suggests that they were waiting for his physical wounds to heal before sending him home.
What can be done? We can't "punish" North Korea – we have no leverage at all. We can't cut off trade because we don't trade with them anyway. We can't seize North Korean bank accounts because there are none. We can't sanction the travel of North Korean officials because they never go anywhere. They are impervious to international pressure.
What was probably a matter of youthful indiscretion – Warmbier wanting a souvenir banner to take back to college and show his buds – has tragically turned into an international incident. Mr. Warmbier's ill advised "destination" vacation may cost him more than he ever imagined he'd have to pay.