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Human Interest

Everything to Know About Otto Warmbier, the U.S. College Student Who Was Imprisoned by North Korea

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University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was detained by North Korea for alleged anti-state acts, was released on Tuesday just over a year into his 15-year sentence.

The University of Virginia student was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel.

He returned home to Ohio on Tuesday in a coma after being “brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime,” his family said in a statement.

Here are five things to know about the 22-year-old.

Who is Otto Warmbier?

Warmbier was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the oldest of three children. He graduated from Wyoming High School in 2013 as salutatorian and was accepted to the University of Virginia, where he began studying for a double major in commerce and economics. He also joined the Theta Chi fraternity.

Why was he in North Korea?

Warmbier traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours, a Chinese company which markets itself as providing “budget travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” Aside from North Korea, Young Pioneer Tours also offers trips to Afghanistan, Iran, Chernobyl, Cuba, Turkmenistan and more.

Warmbier was planning to be in the country for a five-day stay before flying to Beijing to participate in a 10-day tour, sponsored by UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce, of two Asian financial capitals: Hong Kong and Singapore.

The U.S. State Department strongly warns U.S. citizens not to travel to North Korea/the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), though travel there is not illegal.

“U.S. citizens in the DPRK are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” according to the U.S. Department of State. “This system imposes unduly harsh sentences for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States and threatens U.S. citizen detainees with being treated in accordance with ‘wartime law of the DPRK.’ 

“Since the United States does not maintain diplomatic or consular relations with North Korea, the U.S. government has no means to provide normal consular services to U.S. citizens in North Korea.”

Kyodo

Why was he arrested?

Warmbier was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016, while trying to board a plane out of North Korea. He was charged with “hostile acts against the state” after allegedly attempting to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime at his hotel in Pyongyang.

Reading from a prepared statement at a press event before his trial, Warmbier told reporters that he should never “have allowed myself to be lured by the United States administration to commit a crime in this country.”

He added: “I wish that the United States administration never manipulate people like myself in the future to commit crimes against foreign countries. I entirely beg you, the people and government of the DPRK, for your forgiveness. Please! I made the worst mistake of my life!”

During his trial in March 2016, he delivered a tearful confession, saying: “The aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people.”

He was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor. His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, told CNN in early May that they had had no contact with their son for more than a year. He was due to graduate from UVA last month.

Kyodo

How was he released?

Warmbier was one of four Americans detained in North Korea. The others are Kim Dong-chul, 62, who was sentenced in April 2016 to 10 years of hard labor for spying; Kim Sang-duk, who was detained in April of this year, and Kim Hak-song, who was detained last month for “hostile acts.”

Since last March, the U.S. had been pressing North Korea to allow Swedish officials, who act as interlocutors between Washington and Pyongyang, to see the Americans who have been detained in the country, a senior State Department official told CNN. North Koreans reportedly agreed to authorize the Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang to pay a consular visit to all four detainees, according to the State Department — but it is unclear if they were ever able to conduct that visit.

Then last month, North Korean officials asked for an emergency meeting with the United States in New York City, the State Department said, according to ABC News. State Department Special Representative Joseph Yun met with DPRK UN Mission Ambassador Pak in New York City. During this meeting, Yun learned that Warmbier was in a coma.

After consulting President Trump, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson instructed Yun to prepare to travel to North Korea to bring Warmbier back to the United States, according to the State Department, which organized a medical team and an airplane to travel to North Korea.

“At the direction of the president, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in a statement Tuesday. “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. Out of respect for the privacy of Mr. Warmbier and his family, we have no further comment on Mr. Warmbier.”

His release on Tuesday came during a visit to North Korea by former NBA star Dennis Rodman. But Department of State spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Rodman had nothing to do with Warmbier’s release.

Kim Kwang Hyon/AP

Why is he in a coma?

North Korea told a US official that Warmbier contracted botulism and slipped into the coma after taking a sleeping pill, a senior State Department official told CNN.

“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,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said 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 arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Tuesday night and was transported by ambulance to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.