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American sent home by North Korea in a ‘coma’ dies

June 20,2017
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[YONHAP]
Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American college student who was released by North Korea last week in a supposed coma after 17 months of captivity, died Monday, his family said.

He has “completed his journey home,” relatives said in a statement at their home in Cincinnati, Ohio, according to the Associated Press. “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.”

The family has yet to describe the exact cause of the death.

While expressing his “deepest condolences” in a statement issued through the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump said, “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.”

The U.S., he continued, once again “condemns the brutality” of the North Korean regime.

American doctors who were treating Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, last week said he had suffered “severe neurological injury.”

Doctors with the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Warmbier was taken on the night of June 13 upon his arrival in Ohio, said he had severe injuries to all regions of his brain and was in a state of “unresponsive wakefulness,” according to the AP.

No evidence of botulism, a rare illness caused by a toxin, was found. North Korea had told American officials that following his trial in March 2016, Warmbier became sick with the illness and slipped into a coma after being given a sleeping pill.

His family said they were told by North Korea through U.S. government officials that he had been in a coma for more than a year, though they only learned about that condition last week.

“Unresponsive wakefulness” is not the same as a coma.

In a terse statement, North Korea said on its official Korean Central News Agency last Thursday that Warmbier was released on “humanitarian grounds.”

Warmbier was arrested by North Korean authorities in January 2016 for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a restricted area within his hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for subversion. He was visiting North Korea as a tourist.

Three other American detainees remain in the North.

Warmbier’s death is expected to affect Pyongyang-Washington relations, at a time when the regime has been threatening to test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile long enough to reach the U.S. mainland, the first of its kind. Washington had offered dialogue, but only on the condition that North Korea completely denuclearizes.

The case is even more difficult for South Korea’s new liberal president Moon Jae-in, who endorses a softer approach to the North than offered by his predecessor Park Geun-hye, and suggested dialogue with the North if it halts any additional testing of nuclear bombs or missiles.

Moon will fly to Washington next week for a bilateral summit with Trump on June 29 and 30.

BY LEE SUNG-EUN [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]