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What to Know About Otto Warmbier, the U.S. Student Freed by North Korea

7 minute read

University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in North Korea for 17 months for alleged anti-state acts, has been released according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.

“At the direction of the President, the Department of State has secured the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea,” Tillerson said in a statement seen by the Associated Press. “Mr. Warmbier is en route to the U.S. where he will be reunited with his family.” The parents of the 22-year-old said in a statement that their son was medically evacuated from North Korea and has been in a coma for more than a year. The news comes as American former basketball player Dennis Rodman lands in Pyongyang, for what is believed to be his fifth trip to North Korea.

In April, TIME published an indepth feature on Warmbier and his situation by reporter Nash Jenkins. The quotes below are taken from this story.

Who is Otto Warmbier?

Warmbier is the oldest of three children and grew up in a Cincinnati suburb of 8,000 people. Known for being a high achiever, Warmbier graduated as the salutatorian of Wyoming High School and is rumored to have received near-perfect scores in his college entrance exam.

Warmbier grew up in a leafy suburb that has produced Olympians (the swimmer Deana Deerdurff, the hurdler David Payne), an eminent illustrator (Robert McGinnis, who created the movie posters for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and several James Bond films), a general, a federal judge and a world authority on stroke rehabilitation. Warmbier’s father, Fred, runs a small metal finishing company.

Wyoming High School is one of the country’s best and most competitive public schools—a staggering 90% of students take Advanced Placement courses—and in 2013, Warmbier graduated as its salutatorian. “He was off-the-charts brilliant,” Trey Lonneman, who played club soccer with Warmbier through middle and high school, says. When Warmbier was a senior, it was rumored among his classmates that he had received a perfect or near-perfect score on the ACT, the college entrance exam.

He wanted to pursue a career in finance and took up a big workload while in the University of Virginia (UVA):

Peers regarded him as intelligent but also a bit eccentric, and deeply earnest, especially when it came to pursuing a career in finance. This is not especially surprising—UVA ranks among the country’s top 10 programs in business and finance, according to U.S. News and World Report, and draws droves of students accordingly—but those who knew Warmbier said his ambitions were betrayed by a certain guilelessness. “[He was] heading into investment banking, but he was definitely not from that whole world,” one student says.

Still, his résumé was impressive. He took on a rigorous course load, including one advanced econometrics course at the London School of Economics, and participated in a prestigious student investment group.

What was he doing in North Korea?

Warmbier, like thousands of Westerners who have visited North Korea over the years, was in the country for a 5-day holiday:

He was one of 20 foreigners on a trip organized by Young Pioneer Tours, a travel company based in China and staffed by a coterie of chummy Brits and Aussies who arrange, in their words, tours to “destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.” They offer package tours to Afghanistan and Turkmenistan, but really, folks come for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is formally called. The totalitarian hermit kingdom exists in the imagination of many as inscrutable and thrillingly dangerous.

Warmbier’s junket was billed as the “New Year’s Party Tour”: a five-day itinerary, devised and closely monitored by state-sponsored tour guides. The travelers met soldiers in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the 2.5-mile-wide buffer zone that has separated North Korea from the prosperity and liberty of South Korea since 1953; they posed for photos beneath the two 72-foot-high statues of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son and heir Kim Jong Il, at Pyongyang’s Grand Monument. At night, they drank, slamming vodka and North Korean beer until the early hours of the morning in the closely watched hotel.

He was expected to land back in Beijing on Jan. 2, before participating in a 10-day tour, sponsored by UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce, of two Asian financial capitals: Hong Kong and then Singapore. But according to TIME, he never surfaced on social media or on the phone on Jan. 2.

Why was he arrested?

For allegedly committing a “hostile act” of stealing a political poster from a wall in his hotel in Pyongyang. He was detained at the airport as Warmbier attempted to leave the country on Jan. 2. Here’s more:

A Young Pioneer representative will go through the process last, to make sure the group has gone through smoothly. Warmbier was the last of his group to check in, and thus there was only one non-Korean witness to what happened next: 24-year-old Briton Charlotte Guttridge. When she noticed that he was taking longer than usual, she began to walk over to him, only to be told by an insistent airport official that she had to pass through immigration immediately.

Once on the other side of passport control, she looked and saw that was Warmbier was being led away by two uniformed officers. “Otto!” she yelled. He looked at her, and then was led into a room off to the right of the immigration desks. His calmness initially put her at ease—she suspected, then, that the officers were simply inspecting his luggage or electronics, which happens. “He was not dragged away and he wasn’t yelled at,” Guttridge later told Reuters. She stayed in the terminal until the final call for boarding, and then somewhat anxiously took her seat aboard the Air Koryo Tupolev Tu-214, a Soviet-era jet.

Three weeks after the incident, state news media announced that Wambier was arrested for “bringing down the foundation of its single-minded unity” and was attempting to bring down “the foundation of its single-minded unity [with] the tacit connivance of the U.S. government and under its manipulation.” Six weeks after that, Warmbier appeared on state news television where he pleaded for his release and admitted to his alleged crime.

Why was he held for so long?

Kim Jong Un has little interest in bargaining. Here’s more from Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson , who spoke to TIME in April:

Richardson has traveled to North Korea eight times; he has connections with high-ranking North Korean diplomats. He first became involved in Warmbier’s case not long after the arrest, when he got a call from Ohio Governor John Kasich. In September 2016, amid diplomatic tensions over North Korea’s nuclear bomb test that month, his center sent a delegation to the country to meet with North Korean officials.

“The reason this has taken longer is that Kim Jong Un is very unpredictable,” Richardson says of efforts to secure Warmbier’s release. “In the past, under Kim Jong Il these types of political prisoners were used as bargaining chips. One was able to make deals with the [North Korean] leadership—basically for the release of Americans you’d get humanitarian aid or a high-level visit.”

Richardson welcomed Warmbier’s release on Tuesday, but expressed concern for the student’s wellbeing. “In no uncertain terms North Korea must explain the causes of his coma,” Richardson said in a statement seen by TIME. “My Center for Global Engagement has worked on behalf of the Warmbier family with the North Korean government directly, including a visit late last year to advance negotiations for his release, as well as with both the Obama and Trump administrations. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family as they continue to battle for Otto’s life.”

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