American student Otto Warmbier speaks as Warmbier is presented to reporters Monday, Feb. 29, 2016, in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Kim Kwang Hyon—AP
June 22, 2017 6:05 AM EDT

On June 13, just over 17 months after 22-year-old University of Virginia undergraduate Otto Warmbier had been arrested at Pyongyang’s international airport, his parents finally got good news: their son had been released from North Korean custody and was en route to his native Ohio.

Six days later, Warmbier died. Upon his landing in the U.S., the grim reality came to light: the student, who was on a tourist trip in North Korea when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign, had fallen into a coma. How or why is unclear. (North Korean authorities blamed botulism and a botched sleeping pill; his U.S. doctors dismissed this.)

His death is a cautionary tale for those Americans who wish to defy the State Department’s advice and travel to the authoritarian kingdom. “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,” his parents said in a statement.


This appears in the July 03, 2017 issue of TIME.

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