14 Jun 2017

North Korea frees US student said to be in coma

10:12 am on 14 June 2017

North Korea has released an American student who was serving a 15-year prison sentence there with hard labour.

An image released by North Korea's official news agency of US student Otto Warmbier at a media conference in Pyongyang in February 2016.

An image released by North Korea's official news agency of Otto Warmbier at a media conference in Pyongyang last year. Photo: AFP / KCNA VIA KNS

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Otto Warmbier, 22, a University of Virginia student from suburban Cincinnati, was on his way back to the United States.

The Warmbier family told US media they had found out only last week that their son has been in a coma since shortly after his trial in March 2016.

He had been arrested two months earlier for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from a hotel.

In a statement, parents Fred and Cindy said: "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 2016. We learned of this only one week ago."

They were quoted by the Washington Post as saying they had been told their son had contracted botulism, a rare illness that causes paralysis, soon after his trial in March 2016.

He was given a sleeping pill and had been in a coma ever since, the newspaper said.

The release came after Joseph Yun, the State Department's special envoy on North Korea, traveled to Pyongyang on a rare high-level US visit and demanded the student's freedom on humanitarian grounds, culminating a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts, a US official said.

Mr Tillerson made no mention of Mr Warmbier's condition in his statement, saying only that he was on his way home to be reunited with his family and would not make any further comment, out of respect for the privacy of the family.

Media conference confession

Otto Warmbier is an economics graduate from the University of Virginia, originally from Cincinnati, Ohio.

He was in North Korea as a tourist with Young Pioneer Tours when he was arrested on 2 January 2016.

He appeared emotional at a news conference a month later, in which he tearfully confessed to trying to take the sign as a "trophy" for a US church, adding "the aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people".

Foreign detainees in North Korea have previously recanted confessions, saying they were made under pressure.

- BBC / Reuters