On Tuesday North Korea released an American detainee, Otto Warmbier, back to his family in the US, but initial reports say he is in ‘bad shape’ and has been in a coma for a year, CNN’s Will Ripley reports.
“He is being medivacked to the US. The brutalization and terrorism the North Koreans have put upon Otto and the Warmbier family have ended. Thank god,” the Warmbier family told CNN.
Warmbier was serving a 15 year sentence for “anti-state” activities which amounted to little more than attempting to steal a poster from a hotel. The Warmbier family told the Washington Post’s Anna Fitfield that Warmbier came down with botulism after his trial, took a sleeping pill, and has not woken up since. The trial took place over a year ago.
Warmbier’s release coincides with a visit from former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman, though the State Department attributed the release to efforts made by President Donald Trump.
Asked by Business Insider if the US may have coordinated with Rodman over the visit and release of Warmbier, Frank Aum, a former senior adviser on North Korea for the Department of Defense said “the State Department will certainly have been notified of Rodman’s visit.”
“If there was any coordination, it was probably directly with the White House,” Aum continued. “Rodman is the only mutual acquaintance of Trump and Kim Jong-un and Rodman endorsed Trump’s campaign. The government may have denied any coordination but with Trump, you have the believe the unbelievable.”
The timing of Warmbier’s release suggests it was coordinated through back channels, as Rodman has only just arrived in North Korea and such a deal would take a long time to arrange.
But the release of a single detainee hardly hints at a breakthrough in wider bilateral relations, according to Aum. Instead of helping the chances of possible talks to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, the release of Warmbier may have strengthened Kim Jong Un’s hand.
“US detainees in North Korea, although a humanitarian concern, tend to be viewed by the US government as a thorn in the diplomatic side. This is because it gives NK some leverage, which they use to try to extract things like senior level US visits,” said Aum.
In the past, former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton have visited the Hermit Kingdom when detainees needed to be released.