US student dies days after release from N. Korea

University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier on his way to court in Pyongyang in this photo released by Kyodo news agency in March last year. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a political poster.
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier on his way to court in Pyongyang in this photo released by Kyodo news agency in March last year. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a political poster.PHOTO: REUTERS

CHICAGO • Mr Otto Warmbier, the US student released in a coma last week after nearly 18 months in detention in North Korea, died on Monday, leading President Donald Trump to decry the "brutal regime" in Pyongyang.

The 22-year-old was medically evacuated to the United States on Tuesday last week, suffering from severe brain damage.

He died six days later, surrounded by relatives in his home town of Cincinnati, Ohio.

"The awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible," the family said in a statement announcing his death.

The young man was on a tourist trip when he was arrested and sentenced in March last year to 15 years of hard labour for stealing a political poster from a North Korean hotel, a punishment that the United States decried as far out of proportion to his alleged crime.

Mr Trump lashed out at Pyongyang following news of his death, while voicing compassion for his family. "It is a brutal regime," he said during a White House event. "Bad things happened, but at least we got him home to his parents."

In a separate statement, he said: "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."

Doctors last week revealed that Mr Warmbier had suffered severe neurological injuries, and described him as being in a state of "unresponsive wakefulness", opening his eyes and blinking, but showing no signs of understanding language or of being aware of his surroundings. His family said on Monday he appeared anguished when he first arrived home, but died "at peace".

Pyongyang said Mr Warmbier fell into a coma soon after he was sentenced last year, claiming the student had contracted botulism and been given a sleeping pill.

Medical tests carried out last week in the US offered no conclusive evidence as to the cause of his neurological injuries, and no evidence of a prior botulism infection.

Mr Warmbier's doctors said his brain injury was most likely to have been caused by cardiopulmonary arrest cutting the blood supply to the brain.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 21, 2017, with the headline 'US student dies days after release from N. Korea'. Print Edition | Subscribe