(AFP)- An American student who fell into a coma while imprisoned in a North Korean labor camp returned to the United States late Tuesday after Pyongyang allowed him to be flown home, US media reported.
A military airplane carrying Otto Warmbier landed in his hometown of Cincinnati shortly before 10:20 pm (0220 GMT Wednesday), CBS News reported.
The release of Warmbier, 18 months into a 15-year sentence, came as US President Donald Trump invited South Korea’s new leader Moon Jae-In to Washington for talks on the escalating standoff over the North’s nuclear program.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said earlier in the day that his agency had “secured” the 22-year-old’s release in talks with North Korea and is pushing for three more Americans to be freed. It was not immediately clear if he had made any concessions.
The news surfaced after the flamboyant retired NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman — a former contestant on Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice” reality show — flew to Pyongyang to resume his quixotic quest to broker detente between his US homeland and Kim Jong-Un’s authoritarian regime.
But State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the visit “had nothing to do with the release”.
Warmbier’s parents Fred and Cindy announced his release in a statement to CNN on Tuesday.
“Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016,” they said. “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, they added.
On arriving in Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport, Warmbier was transferred to a waiting ambulance that rushed him to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center for urgent treatment, Fox News reported.
– Political pawn –
Warmbier’s parents were told their son had contracted botulism and was given a sleeping pill soon after his trial in March last year and never woke.
The New York Times reported a senior US official as saying the authorities recently received intelligence indicating Warmbier was repeatedly beaten while in custody.
US officials refused to comment on his condition, but former ambassador and New Mexico governor Bill Richardson said he had spoken with the family.
“Otto has been in a coma for over a year now and urgently needs proper medical care in the United States,” said Richardson, who has previously served as a special envoy to North Korea and still works on prisoner issues.
“We received a call from Cindy and Fred Warmbier early today to update us on Otto’s condition. In no uncertain terms, North Korea must explain the causes of his coma.”
Tillerson told US senators at the start of a budget hearing that the State Department had no comment on Warmbier’s condition “out of respect for him and his family.”
The United States had accused the North of using Warmbier as a political pawn, condemning the sentence as far out of proportion to his alleged crime.
The release came amid tension between Washington and Pyongyang following a series of missile tests by the North, focusing attention on an arms buildup that Pentagon chief Jim Mattis on Monday dubbed “a clear and present danger to all.”
Almost immediately on taking office in January, Trump and his team — having been briefed by the outgoing president Barack Obama — declared the North’s attempts to build, test and arm a nuclear-capable ballistic missile as Washington’s biggest threat.
Washington has stepped up pressure on China and other foreign powers to enforce existing UN sanctions, and has deployed increased military assets of its own in the region.
Tillerson indicated on Tuesday that Washington is looking for new ways to increase pressure on Pyongyang, telling senators that the White House is considering whether to impose “secondary sanctions” on third countries that do business with North Korea.
Parallel to that track, basketball showman Rodman arrived Tuesday in Pyongyang wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a cryptocurrency set up for marijuana marketers.
The star has visited the North at least four times before, most recently in 2014 when he attracted a deluge of criticism after being filmed singing happy birthday to his “friend for life,” leader Kim.
Before arriving this time, Rodman told reporters that Trump would be happy with the trip because he was “trying to accomplish something that we both need,” prompting speculation that he may be operating as an unofficial envoy.
US officials dismissed the rumors, saying he was traveling as a private citizen.
– ‘Worst mistake’ –
Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, was arrested for removing a political banner from a wall at a North Korean hotel.
He was detained at the airport as he was leaving the country with a tour group in January 2016.
At a news conference before his trial, a sobbing Warmbier said he had made “the worst mistake of my life” and pleaded to be released.
The North has occasionally jailed US citizens and released them only after visits by high-profile political figures, including former president Bill Clinton.