Former NBA player Dennis Rodman arrives in North Korea

Sunday, 18 Jun, 2017

An American college student who has been in North Korean custody for a year-and-a-half arrived in Cincinnati Tuesday night on a medical evacuation flight.

The 22-year-old's return marks an end to the ordeal that his family has been through, not knowing what had happened to Warmbier since he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor in March last year. He reportedly was detained for trying to remove a propaganda banner from his hotel. The North Korean government, on the other hand, says that the poster was stolen "pursuant to the United States government's hostile policy toward (the North), in a bid to impair the unity of its people after entering it as a tourist".

A state department official and a source close to the family said the 22-year-old contracted botulism last year and slipped into a coma after taking a sleeping pill.

The State Department denied any connection between Warmbier's release and Rodman's visit, which President Donald Trump's administration said it did not authorise. North Korea repatriated a sick US citizen it had held captive for 17 months, and Dennis Rodman arrived with fanfare in Pyongyang. A person who answered the phone at Warmbier's family's OH residence said: "No comment, thank you" and hung up.

Dennis Rodman, the former National Basketball Association bad boy who has palled around with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, flew back to Pyongyang on Tuesday for the first time in Donald Trump's presidency. Two ambulances met the plane on the runway to transfer Otto to the hospital.

Warmbier's parents were told their son was given a sleeping pill soon after his trial in March past year and never woke. "We learned of this only one week ago", they said.

"Since March 2, no one has seen or heard from Otto". Former NBA star Dennis Rodman made his fifth visit to the country, telling reporters before his arrival that he hoped to "open a door" between Kim and the rest of the world. Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labor in 2016 for allegedly committing "hostile acts" against the North Korean regime.

USA student Otto Warmbier is escorted at the supreme court in Pyongyang, North Korea, in 2016.

He had not been seen in public since, and Swedish diplomats, representing US interests, had been denied consular access to him.

But North Korea has so far rejected South Korean civic groups' bids to visit the North for exchanges, taking issue with South Korea's support of the latest United Nations sanctions.

"They were looking at ways to do that and this was one of the instruments they were looking at, and the foreign ministry thought it was advisable to formally extend an invitation", he told AFP.

U.S. Senator Rob Portman of OH said: "Otto's detainment and sentence was unnecessary and appalling, and North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behaviour".

The North has occasionally jailed U.S. citizens on charges ranging from hostile acts to illegal entry, and released them only after visits by high-profile figures including former president Bill Clinton. Sadly, he is in a coma and we have been told he has been in that condition since March of 2016.

Warmbier would have graduated from U.Va. last month had he not been detained.

The young undergraduate honors student was forced the next month, at a staged news conference, to admit to a "very severe and pre-planned crime", saying that the "aim of my task was to harm the motivation and work ethic of the Korean people".

"Fred, Cindy, and the Warmbier family have been remarkably strong throughout this ordeal".

Sen. Rob Portman confirmed the release but did not comment on Warmbier's health.

"We strongly suggest that Americans do not go to North Korea", Nauert said.

He was detained at the airport as he was leaving the country with a tour group in January 2016.

The State Department announced Warmbier's release earlier Tuesday but gave no details on his condition.