- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A former University of Virginia student was medically evacuated Tuesday from North Korea, where he had been detained 17 months accused of crimes against the secretive, totalitarian regime.

Otto Warmbier, 22, had faced a 15-year prison sentence. His parents — Fred and Cindy Warmbier of Wyoming, Ohio — announced his release, which was later confirmed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Otto has left North Korea. He is on [a] 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,” the Warmbiers said in a statement reported by CNN.

A source close to the family told CNN that Mr. Warmbier had contracted botulism and was in “bad shape.”

“We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime,” the Warmbiers told The Associated Press. “We are so grateful that he will finally be with people who love him.”

Mr. Tillerson released a statement: “At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea. Mr. Warmbier is en route to the United States, where he will be reunited with his family. The Department of State continues to have discussions with the DPRK regarding three other U.S. citizens reported detained.”

DPRK stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name of North Korea.

The North still holds three other Americans. Businessman Kim Dong-chul was arrested in October 2015 and accused of espionage. 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” both worked at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.

The State Department offered no comment on Mr. Warmbier’s health or the circumstances of his release, saying its decision to remain silent was out of respect for the family’s privacy.

News of Mr. Warmbier’s release came hours after former NBA player Dennis Rodman landed in Pyongyang, his fifth trip to North Korea since 2013. He told reporters that he’s visiting to “see some friends and have a good time.”

Mr. Rodman is the only American to have spent substantial time with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. The controversial NBA Hall of Famer also has an established relationship with President Trump, having appeared twice on Mr. Trump’s former reality TV series “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

There is no indication that Mr. Rodman’s visit is related to Mr. Warmbier’s release or that Mr. Rodman will discuss the release of the other Americans. He told reporters in Beijing that it is “not my purpose right now.”

Responding to a question from The Associated Press about whether Mr. Trump is aware of his visit, Mr. Rodman said, “Well, I’m pretty sure he’s pretty much happy with the fact that I’m over here trying to accomplish something that we both need.”

The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea. The State Department strongly advises against U.S. citizens traveling to the isolated nation, but Americans can secure tourist visas if they travel with an organized tour group and are accompanied by North Korean government officials.

Mr. Warmbier had employed the services of a Chinese-based tour company to visit the country in December 2015. He was detained in January 2016 by North Korean officials at Pyongyang airport while preparing to depart.

He was charged with committing “hostile acts” for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel under the direction of the U.S. administration and church groups associated with the CIA.

North Korea frequently charges the U.S. with sending spies to sabotage and overthrow its government, and bans proselytizing by Christians; the communist regime outlaws religion.

Mr. Warmbier admitted a connection to church groups in a press conference after his arrest, but it is unclear if his confessions were prepared and made under duress. In a one-hour trial, he was sentenced to 15 years hard labor.

In a video released by North Korea of a press conference shortly after Mr. Warmbier’s arrest, he is seen distraught and crying, admitting to some of the crimes.

“I beg for forgiveness I never should have allowed myself to be lured by the United States Administration to commit a crime in this country. I wish that the United States Administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries,” Mr. Warmbier says in the video.

He refers to himself as a “poor and innocent scapegoat” and asked for forgiveness for making “the worst mistake of my life.”

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

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