Last year I wrote about the sad situation college student Otto Warmbier found himself in after trying to take a political banner hanging in his hotel in North Korea. Warmbier didn’t actually take the banner, which he had decided was too big to smuggle in his luggage, but as he was waiting for a plane to take him (and his tour group) back to China he was arrested at the airport. Warmbier was given a show trial at which he begged forgiveness for the crime of removing the banner which, like everything in North Korea, was promoting state communism. A month later Warmbier was sentenced to 15-years of hard labor for his crime.
Today, after 17-months in captivity, Warmbier was released and is being flown home to the United States. However, it turns out he has not been doing hard labor for his “crime” but has been in a coma for most of the time since his sentence. From 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,” said Fred and Cindy Warmbier 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.”
According to North Korea, Warmbier fell into the coma after a case of botulism. From the Washington Post:
The North Korean account, the family said, claimed Warmbier then fell into a coma after being given a sleeping pill. The Warmbiers said they were told their son has remained in a coma since then.
There was no immediate confirmation from U.S. officials of North Korea’s description of his illness — including whether he was stricken with botulism, a potentially fatal disease that is caused by a toxin but is not usually associated with loss of consciousness.
The U.S. apparently only learned of Warmbier’s condition about a week ago after Swedish diplomats visited him. Immediately after that visit, North Korea contacted the U.S. to request a meeting with a State Department official. That official traveled to Pyongyang Monday and, upon seeing Warmbier was in a coma, immediately demanded his release.
North Korea has a system of prison camps for political prisoners where inmates are starved and beaten, often until they die. One prisoner who survived one of the most notorious camps described weekly executions and mass graves. Human rights organizations suggest as many as 400,000 people have been killed in the camps.