Otto Warmbier was imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year. He died less than a week after his release back to the U.S.
WASHINGTON — A mix of sadness and outrage flooded from Cincinnati to Washington on Monday amid the news that Wyoming, Ohio, native Otto Warmbier had died less than a week after being released from his 17-month-long detention in North Korea.
“At least we got him home to be with his parents where they were so happy to see him even though he was in very tough condition,” President Trump said before a meeting of high-tech CEOs on Monday afternoon.
Referring to his imprisonment in North Korea, Trump said, “A lot of bad things happened … It is a brutal regime and we’ll be able to handle it.”
It was not immediately clear if the president was signalling further escalation of tensions with that repressive dictatorship. In an official White House statement released later on Monday, Trump offered his “deepest condolences” to Warmbier’s family and suggested the college student’s death would be a factor in U.S. policy toward North Korea.
“Otto’s fate deepens my administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency,” Trump said. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”
In Congress, some of the rhetoric turned red-hot, with several lawmakers calling Warmbier’s death a “murder” and saying the U.S. should respond forcefully, although they did not detail what that response should be.
“Let us state the facts plainly: Otto Warmbier, an American citizen, was murdered by the Kim Jong-un regime,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. McCain noted that North Korea has threatened its neighbors, destabilized the Asia-Pacific region, and is rapidly developing the nuclear weapons technology to strike the U.S.
“Now it has escalated to brutalizing Americans, including three other citizens currently imprisoned in North Korea,” the senator said. “The United States of America cannot and should not tolerate the murder of its citizens by hostile powers.”
Similarly, the House Democratic whip, Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, said: “The brutal dictatorship in North Korea is responsible for his murder, and the United States and our allies must continue to apply pressure on the Kim regime and make it clear that such actions are unacceptable.”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered a more measured response, saying the U.S. holds North Korea “accountable for Otto Warmbier’s unjust imprisonment” and demands the release of the three other Americans detained in that country.
‘Such a promising young man’
Ohio’s two U.S. senators focused their comments more on the Warmbier family than on escalating U.S.-North Korea tensions.
“Otto Warmbier was such a promising young man. He was kind, generous and accomplished,” said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who had worked with the Warmbier family to secure Otto’s release. “Jane and I are lifting up the Warmbier family in our prayers at this difficult time, and we are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of this remarkable young Ohioan.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said “our hearts are broken for Otto’s family and everyone who knew and loved him. Connie and I are praying for Fred and Cindy, whose grace in the face of this unthinkable grief is truly remarkable.”
Ohio Gov. John Kasich said “this horrendous situation further underscores the evil, oppressive nature of the North Korean regime that has such disregard for human life.”
UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan said it was with “great sadness” the university heard of Warmbier’s death.
Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, announced their son’s death in an emotional statement Monday.
“When Otto returned to Cincinnati late on June 13th he was unable to speak, unable to see and unable to react to verbal commands,” the statement said. The medical team at the University of Cincinnati did everything they could for Otto, the Warmbiers said, but “the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today.”
Warmbier’s family learned last week that the University of Virginia student had been in a coma since March 2016. He was taken to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center on Tuesday night as soon as his plane landed at Lunken Airport.
At a news conference last Thursday, UC doctors said he apparently suffered “respiratory distress,” and the oxygen supply to the brain was cut off. Brain scans showed severe damage, and UC doctors described his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.”
But it’s not clear what caused him to go into a coma. North Korean officials said Warmbier fell into a coma after he developed a case of botulism and then took a sleeping pill.
His Cincinnati doctors said they found no indication of remaining botulism, but they also said it’s unlikely such a toxin would still be in the body after more than a year.
Contributing: Kellie Bancalari, USA TODAY College, and Anne Saker, The Cincinnati Enquirer.
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