SEOUL • The United States said yesterday North Korea has released an American student, hours after flamboyant former NBA star Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea as part of a so-called "basketball diplomacy" trip.
But in a twist of fate, the 22-year-old has been found to be in a coma after 17 months of incarceration.
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been medically evacuated from the country, his parents told The Washington Post yesterday.
Mr Warmbier was on a New Year's Eve tour in North Korea, en route to Hong Kong, where he was to do a January study-abroad trip last year.
But on his final night in Pyongyang - New Year's Eve - Mr Warmbier appeared to have gone to a staff-only floor of his hotel and attempted to take down a large propaganda sign lauding the regime.
He was charged with "hostile acts against the state", and after an hour-long trial in March the same year, sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labour.
Mr Warmbier had been in a coma for more than a year, since shortly after his last appearance at the trial, said The Washington Post. He was due to arrive home in Cincinnati on yesterday evening, having been evacuated through a US military base in Sapporo, Japan.
"At the moment, we're just treating this like he's been in an accident. We get to see our son Otto tonight," Mr Fred Warmbier said.
The release was announced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington yesterday morning but he did not discuss Mr Warmbier's medical condition.
The Warmbiers were told that the American student had come down with a case of botulism soon after his trial - which lasted only one hour - and had been given a sleeping pill, from which he never woke up.
There is no way of knowing yet whether the North Korean version of events is true, but the Warmbiers have been told their son had been in a coma the whole time.
Mr Warmbier was flown out of North Korea on the same day that Mr Rodman - who was filmed previously singing Happy Birthday to his "friend for life", leader Kim Jong Un - arrived for his fifth visit in Pyongyang.
Sporting a baseball cap, sunglasses, multiple facial piercings and a black T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of sponsor PotCoin - a cryptocurrency for the legal cannabis industry - Mr Rodman was greeted at Pyongyang airport by Sports Vice-Minister Son Kwang Ho and journalists.
"I'm just trying to open the door," the eccentric former Chicago Bulls forward said at Beijing airport before boarding his Air Koryo flight.
Mr Kim, 34, is reported to be a keen basketball fan and especially of the Chicago Bulls. Mr Rodman played a key role in winning three NBA titles for them in the 1990s.
Mr Rodman's trip caused a media frenzy because of the heightened tensions between North Korea and the US.
But it also raised speculation that he might be going as an envoy to secure the release of Mr Warmbier and three other detained Americans, including former Virginia resident Kim Dong Chul who was arrested shortly after Mr Warmbier, on accusations of espionage.
WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS