Otto Warmbier, a U.S. citizen held captive in North Korea for more than 17 months and who returned to Ohio last week in a coma, has died aged 22, his family announced on Monday.
“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,” his family said in a statement.
Warmbier, a former student of commerce and economics at the University of Virginia originally from Ohio, had been sentenced to a 15-year hard labor sentence by North Korean authorities for “crimes against the state.”
He was suddenly released last week and flown back to the U.S. in a coma after secret negotiations involving the State Department’s special representative for North Korea, Joseph Yun, and North Korean authorities in New York City and, ultimately, Pyongyang.
“Melania and I offer our deepest condolences to the family of Otto Warmbier on his untimely passing,” U.S. President Donald J. Trump said on Monday in a statement released by the White House.
“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 democracy,” Trump continued. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
The U.S. State Department also released a statement, condemning North Korea for its treatment of Warmbier and calling on Pyongyang to release the three Americans that remain in captivity in the DPRK.
“We hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
Young Pioneer Tours, the China-based tour company that brought Warmbier to the DPRK, also expressed regret about the death on Monday in a statement released to NK News and said that, in light of what had happened, it would no longer be bringing U.S. citizens into North Korea.
“Our deepest sympathies are with Otto Warmbier and those who loved him,” YPT DPRK Managing Director Troy Collings said. “We had held onto hope that he might recover, and have the life that he should have had, but now those hopes are gone, and we too are reeling with the shock of a young man’s life taken well before his time.”
“The way his detention was handled was appalling, and a tragedy like this must never be repeated,” Collings continued.
“Despite constant requests, we were denied any opportunity to meet him or anyone in contact with him in Pyongyang, only receiving assurances that he was fine.”
“There has still been almost no information disclosed about his period in detention,” Collings added. “Considering these facts and this tragic outcome we will no longer be organising tours for U.S. citizens to North Korea.”
Long-time North Korea watcher Dr. John Nilsson Wright, a senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at Chatham House in London, described the case as “puzzling”.
“If, as it seems on the surface, he has been mistreated by the North Korean authorities in an effort to send a signal to Washington then it is surely a major miscalculation,” he said.
“Not only will it jeopardize foreign tourist revenue, but it will massively set back any tentative prospect of backchannel or semi-official dialogue with Washington.”
Warmbier was arrested by authorities early last year while on a visit to North Korea as a tourist, after he walked into a staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel in Pyongyang and took down a political slogan from a wall.
The North Korean government released Warmbier for “humanitarian reasons” last week, according to the country’s state media, as it was revealed upon his release that he had been in coma for nearly a year.
The DPRK told his family that he had contracted botulism, a rare and potentially life-threatening bacterial illness, while imprisoned, and that he had fallen into a coma due to a sleeping pill after his last public appearance in 2016.
But doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center in the U.S. said on June 15 they could not find evidence he had contracted the rare disease, though they did find signs of a “severe neurological injury.”
“Whatever Mr. Warmbier ultimately died of, it’s clear that his tragic death highlights the risky nature of tourism to North Korea,” Dr. John Hemmings, Director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, told NK News.
“The fact that his trivial crime – the theft of a banner – cost this young man’s life should remind all of us of the nature of the regime and its horrific list of human rights infringements,” he said.
There are currently still three U.S. citizens in detention in North Korea. Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, both affiliated with the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), were arrested in late April and early May, respectively, and Kim Dong-chul, who was sentenced in October 2015 to 10 years hard labor for espionage.
Additional reporting by Chad O’Carroll
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCTV