Ex-Gov. Richardson: N. Korea Must Explain Why Released American Is Comatose

By Patrick Goodenough | June 14, 2017 | 4:16 AM EDT

A military aircraft landed in Cincinnati late Tuesday night, bringing American student Otto Warmbier home from captivity in North Korea. He is in a coma for unexplained reasons. (Screen grab of Warmbier's arrival from NBC News)

(CNSNews.com) – Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson said Tuesday the North Koreans must “in no uncertain terms” explain the reason why an American student released from their custody is in a coma.

Richardson, who previously attempted to secure Otto Warmbier’s freedom, was responding to the news that the 22-year-old from Cincinnati was heading home.

A military aircraft landed in Cincinnati late Tuesday night and Warmbier was reportedly taken directly to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Warmiber, a third-year commerce and economics student at the University of Virginia, was put on trial for “hostile acts against the state” after being accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel room during a visit to the Stalinist-ruled country early last year.

He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years’ imprisonment with hard labor and, according to his parents, fell into a coma shortly thereafter.

“Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,”  Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement.

“We learned of this only one week ago. We want the world to know how we and our son have been brutalized and terrorized by the pariah regime in North Korea.”

A photo posted on an official regime propaganda website on June 9 shows Kim Jong-un reacting after the test launch of a cruise missile. (Photo: Uriminzokkiri)

The incident comes at a time of grave tensions on the Korean peninsula, with the Kim Jong-un regime signaling plans to top a series of missile launches with the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) – and threatening nuclear retaliation for what it says is U.S. aggression.

In a short statement earlier Tuesday Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced Otto was coming home.

“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,” he said.

State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert repeatedly declined during a press briefing to comment on Warmbier’s physical condition or provide further details of the diplomacy that secured his release.

“If his parents choose to address it [his health], they are more than welcome to do so,” she said. “But I am not going to characterize what their son may have been through or may not have been through, so I’m just going to have to refer you to the family right now.”

Richardson said his center in Sante Fe, N.M. received a call Tuesday from the Warmbiers with an update on their son’s condition.

“In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma,” he said. “My Center for Global Engagement has worked on behalf of the Warmbier family with the North Korean government directly, including a visit late last year to advance negotiations for his release, as well as with both the Obama and Trump administrations.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with his family as they continue to battle for Otto’s life.”

‘Abhorrent behavior’

Richardson, also a former congressman, energy secretary and ambassador to the U.N., has long been involved in efforts to secure the release of prisoners and hostages, including those held by North Korea.

In the 1990s he visited at President Clinton’s request to secure the release of the pilot of a U.S. helicopter downed after unintentionally straying across the DMZ during a routine training mission (a second pilot was killed); and to bring home an American man accused of espionage after swimming across a river on the North Korea-China border.

Warmbier hails from Cincinnati, and Ohio’s two senators both welcomed his release, while condemning his captors.

“Otto’s detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior,” said Republican Sen. Rob Portman.

“For North Korea to imprison Otto with no notification or consular access for more than a year is the utmost example of its complete failure to recognize fundamental human rights and dignity.”

Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown said “North Korea’s despicable actions in detaining and holding Otto were unacceptable and must be condemned.”

University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan said the whole UVA community was relieved to learn of Warmbier’s release but was “deeply concerned and saddened to learn from his family that he is in a coma.”

On May 21, the day Warmbier would have graduated, UVA student leaders distributed “Free Otto” stickers and organized a tribute in his honor.

Warmbier visited North Korea on an “adventure tour” organized by a China-based company specializing in budget trips to the reclusive country.

The State Department advises “strongly” against visits by U.S. citizens to North Korea, noting that at least 16 Americans have been detained there over the last decade.

“U.S. citizens in the DPRK are at serious risk of arrest and long-term detention under North Korea’s system of law enforcement,” says the latest travel warning, updated last month.

“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.’”

Three Korean-Americans are currently believed to be held in North Korea, and Tillerson said Tuesday the State Department was continuing discussions with the North Koreans about them.

The three are businessman Kim Dong Chul, arrested in April 2016, and two academics at the Western-funded, private Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-Song, arrested in April and May this year.

A Korean-Canadian arrested in February 2015, Hyeon Soo Lim, also remains incarcerated there.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow