- The Washington Times - Monday, June 19, 2017

Otto F. Warmbier, the University of Virginia student who was in a coma last week when North Korea released him after 17 months of detention, died at a Cincinnati hospital Monday, sparking outrage and accusations of “murder” lodged against the communist regime that held him.

Members of Congress clamored for a U.S. response, and one top lawmaker said the U.S. should ban tourist visits to North Korea to keep Americans from falling into the regime’s hands.

The student died as tensions between Washington and Pyongyang were on the rise.

“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,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier and other family members said in a statement announcing their son’s death.

President Trump called Mr. Warmbier the “latest victim” of Pyongyang’s dictatorship, saying “the United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime.”

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,” Mr. Trump said in a statement.

Mr. Warmbier’s case took a series of surprising turns in recent weeks after an announcement by the government of Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang that it was suddenly freeing the 22-year-old for “humanitarian” reasons.

In an announcement that appeared in state-controlled media, North Korean authorities gave no indication about Mr. Warmbier’s medical condition.

Confusion about Mr. Warmbier’s treatment while in custody swirled when news broke that he was allowed to be rescued by medevac from Pyongyang and taken to a hospital in his home state of Ohio, where U.S. doctors quickly assessed that he was comatose and likely suffered a massive trauma to the head while in detention.

An assessment based on dated MRI scans that were reportedly provided by the North Korean government determined that Mr. Warmbier sustained the catastrophic brain injury sometime after Pyongyang circulated a video of the American student apologizing on North Korean state television in February 2016.

North Korean authorities arrested Mr. Warmbier in January 2016 while he was trying to leave the country. Then a junior at the University of Virginia, Mr. Warmbier had been studying abroad for the year in China when he decided to hire a Chinese-based tour company to make the risky visit to Pyongyang.

Authorities charged Mr. Warmbier with committing “hostile acts” and accused him of trying to steal a propaganda poster from inside the Yanggakdo Hotel, where he was staying in the North Korean capital.

The North Koreans claimed Mr. Warmbier was acting under the direction of church groups and others that Pyongyang accuses of association with U.S. intelligence.

During his apology on North Korean state media — an appearance that analysts say may have been coerced or concocted entirely by authorities in Pyongyang — Mr. Warmbier said a woman from Friendship United Methodist Church of Wyoming, Ohio, had promised to buy him a car if he stole the propaganda poster.

He also said that an organization known as the “Z Society” — an old and secretive club at the University of Virginia that North Korean officials accuse of association with the CIA — had promised to make him a member if he was successful.

The North Koreans sentenced Mr. Warmbier to 15 years of hard labor. After his appearance on the video, little information was known or circulated on his whereabouts inside the isolated nation.

Then came his sudden release. “When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands,” Mr. Warmbier’s parents and family said in their statement Monday.

In announcing his death, the family added that “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.”

“But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person,” the statement said. “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.”

Both Democrats and Republicans said North Korea was guilty of murder in the death and called for increased U.S. pressure on the regime.

House Foreign Relations Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, said the U.S. must ban tourist travel to North Korea on U.S. passports.

Otto’s father is right: Travel propaganda lures far too many people to North Korea,” Mr. Royce said. “This is a regime that regularly kidnaps foreign citizens and keeps 120,000 North Koreans in barbaric gulags.”

Rep. Christopher H. Smith, New Jersey Republican, called for further shifts in U.S. policy away from that of President Obama, under whose administration Mr. Warmbier was arrested and tried.

“The era of strategic patience is over,” Mr. Smith said.

“The administration has thankfully moved on from the failed policies of the Obama administration, but we cannot shy away from the truth that a rogue regime, able to sentence a young tourist to 15 years of hard labor for apparently stealing a propaganda poster, is willing to use nuclear weapons when it finally acquires them. This is a clear national security threat that requires action,” he said.

Mr. Smith also pointed out that three other U.S. citizens are being held in North Korea.

American businessman Kim Dong-chul was convicted of espionage and sentenced last year to 10 years in prison. He made a confession to CNN, but lawmakers have questioned whether it was coerced.

Two academics — Kim Sang-duk, who was arrested April 22, and Kim Hak-song, who was arrested May 6 — have been charged with “hostile acts.”

Secretary of State Rex W. 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.”

Detained Americans are frequently used as bargaining chips for the North Korean regime to gain legitimacy on the world stage or to push for an easing of sanctions.

Laura Kelly contributed to this report.

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