American college student Otto Warmbier only intended to spend five days sightseeing in North Korea in 2016.
Instead, he spent 17 months there in detention where his family believes he was tortured into a vegetative state.
On Monday, less than a week after returning to the United States with severe brain damage, his family announced Warmbier had “completed his journey home.” The 22-year-old died Monday afternoon in Cincinnati, Ohio, with his family at his side.
The North Korean government said he fell into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill in March 2016. But US doctors said they found no evidence of the illness.
State Department special representative Joseph Yun learned of Warmbier’s deteriorating health in a meeting with North Korean UN Mission Ambassador Pak Kil-yon in New York City, the senior State Department official said.
Yun went to North Korea on June 12 with a medical team to secure Warmbier’s release, the official said. Yun and two doctors visited Warmbier that morning, marking the first time the United States was able to confirm his status since he was sentenced in March 2016. Yun immediately demanded that Warmbier be released on humanitarian grounds and arrangements were made for him to leave.
He was evacuated the next day and reunited with his family in Cincinnati.
Warmbier had not spoken or moved in any purposeful way since his return, a condition his doctors called “unresponsive wakefulness” also known as persistent vegetative state. He had suffered significant brain damage during his imprisonment.
Otto Warmbier was a University of Virginia student when he was detained in January 2016. He had signed up for a trip to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours travel group. It was to be a brief stay followed by a visit to Beijing.
But as he tried to depart from Pyongyang’s airport, he was stopped in security.
According to the North Korean government, Warmbier was detained because he had stolen a political poster from a restricted floor in his hotel. The next time the world saw Warmbier he was distraught, breaking down in front of Korean journalists in a video North Korea released in February 2016.
He admitted to the crime and begged for forgiveness. He pleaded to be released. Instead, he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
His death led Young Pioneer Tours to announce it would no longer offer US citizens trips to North Korea. The group said it was denied requests to meet Warmbier or anyone who’d been in contact with him in Pyongyang, only receiving assurances that he was fine.
Kenneth Bae, a US citizen who was detained by North Korea for 735 days before his release in 2014, described Warmbier’s death as an “outrage” and a “tragedy.”
“We plead with the US government, the international community, and leadership in North Korea to value human lives. Every life is important — Otto’s life, lives of the American detainees, and the lives of each person in North Korea,” Bae said.
“I pray that these innocent people suffering in North Korea are not forgotten in this high-stakes game of weapons, sanctions, and international diplomacy,” he added.
Three Americans still remain imprisoned in North Korea. Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were arrested in recent months on charges of committing “hostile acts.” A third American, Kim Dong Chul was detained in 2015.
This is what we know about the US citizens who remain imprisoned in North Korea:
Kim Dong Chul October 2015 – Kim, a naturalized American, is taken into custody after allegedly meeting a source to obtain a USB stick and camera used to gather military secrets. In January 2016, Kim is given permission to speak with CNN by North Korean officials, and asks that the United States or South Korea rescue him.
March 25, 2016 – Kim has confessed to espionage charges, a North Korean official tells CNN.
April 29, 2016 – A North Korean official tells CNN that Kim has been sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for subversion and espionage.
Kim Hak-song May 7, 2017 – The state-run Korean Central News Agency reports that US citizen Kim Hak-song was detained in North Korea on May 6 on suspicion of “hostile acts” against the regime. The regime describes Kim as “a man who was doing business in relation to the operation of Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.”
Kim Sang Duk April 22, 2017 – US citizen Kim Sang Duk, also known as Tony Kim, is detained by authorities at Pyongyang International Airport for unknown reasons. Kim taught for several weeks at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
May 3, 2017 – State-run Korean Central News Agency reports that Kim is accused of attempting to overthrow the government.