North Korea has freed an American student detained since January 2016, and later sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour, for attempting to steal a propaganda sign from his Pyongyang hotel.
Otto Warmbier, 22, is now on his way home, to be reunited with his family, according to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
At a televised news conference a month after his arrest, Warmbier said he had stolen the sign for a “deaconess” at his Friendship United Methodist Church in Ohio, after she promised to give him a used car worth $10,000 if he brought back the sign. However, the senior pastor at the church in Wyoming, Ohio, told CNN at that time that he did not know the person identified by Warmbier as a deaconess there, and said Warmbier was not a member of the congregation.
Warmbier has been medically evacuated in an apparently medically-induced coma. It is believed he contracted botulism (caused by a toxin) shortly after his trial. For this he took (or was given) a sleeping pill, and has been in a coma for the past year, according to the Washington Post.
“At the moment, we’re just treating this like he’s been in an accident,” his father, Fred, is quoted as saying.
In April, Fred and Cindy Warmbier told the Washington Post that they didn’t know if their son was still alive.
“If we are non-functioning and depressed, then they’ve not only imprisoned Otto, they’ve imprisoned us, too,” his mother had said.
North Korea is ranked No. 1 on Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List of the 50 most difficult places to be a Christian.
A North Korean man, Kim Seung-mo, 61, was arrested last week on “spying” charges after meeting with Christian relatives in China.
In April, Tony Kim and Kim Hak Song were arrested, having both worked with North Korea’s Christian-run Pyongyang University of Science and Technology.
Previously, in 2015, 62-year-old Korean-American missionary Kim Dong Chul was detained and Korean-Canadian pastor Hyeun-soo Lim was given a life sentence for charges including trying to overthrow the government. Like Tony Kim, Lim was involved in humanitarian work with orphanages.