This article has been updated. June 15, 2017. 3:33 PM ET.
WASHINGTON – The father of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old Ohio student who was released by North Korea, praised President Donald Trump’s efforts Thursday to secure his son’s release and criticized the response of the Barack Obama administration.
Fred Warmbier said in a news conference at the Ohio high school where his son attended that Otto had been “brutalized and terrorized” by the North Korean regime, hours after North Korea said it had freed him on “humanitarian grounds.”
Warmbier said Trump called him Wednesday night and they shared “a really nice,” kind and gracious conversation, during which Trump said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Yun had negotiated Otto’s release.
Warmbier made clear his displeasure with the Obama administration, saying that Obama officials had urged the family to stay quite to not displease the regime. He said that his family had been presented with the false premise that Otto would be treated fairly. Warmbier said he and his wife grew tired of the “strategic patience” approach, and began talking to the media. He credited his interview with Fox New’s Tucker Carlson for pushing his son toward release.
“The question is do I think the past administration could have done more?” he said. “I think the results speak for themselves.”
At a later news event Thursday, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, where Otto is being treated, said that he is in a vegetative state of “unresponsive wakefulness.” They said Otto had extensive loss of tissue in all regions of the brain.
“He shows no signs of understanding language or responding to verbal commands,” said Dr. Daniel Kanter, professor of neurology and director of the Neurocritical Care Program.
Dr. Brandon Foreman, a neurologist, said tests showed no signs of botulinum poisoning. North Korea claimed that Otto had fallen into a coma after being given a sleeping pill while being treated for botulism.
Warmbier had dismissed the claim by North Korea.
“Even if you believe their explanation of botulism and a sleeping pill causing the coma — and we don’t — there is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top notch medical care for so long,” he said.
North Korea said in a statement carried by its state media Thursday that Otto had been released on “humanitarian grounds” but offered no details about his medical condition or the diplomatic negotiations that led to his release.
“Under a decision by the DPRK Central Court of June 13, American citizen Otto Warmbier who was serving a sentence of labor was returned on June 13 on humanitarian grounds,” North Korea’s KCNA news agency said, using an acronym for the nation’s full name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said Thursday that Trump had directed Tillerson to conduct “quiet diplomacy” to secure the release of Otto and three other U.S. citizens held there after being briefed on their detention in Feb. 2017.
Nauert offered a timeline of events: In May of 2017, Yun met with high level officials within the North Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the sidelines of separate Track II discussions in Norway to talk about detained U.S. citizens. On June 6 in New York, Yun met with North Korean diplomats and was informed about Otto’s condition for the first time. Tillerson then directed Yun to travel to North Korea to negotiate Otto’s release. Yun traveled to Pyongyang June 12 on a private aircraft with a medical team to begin the negotiations. Yun and two doctors saw Otto for the first time that day since his sentencing in March 2016. After several hours of discussion, an agreement was made for his release and arrangements were then made for his transportation back to the U.S. On June 13, Otto arrived back in the U.S.
In an interview with Fox’s Carlson set to air Thursday night, Warmbier said that Otto went into a coma the day after he was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labor.
Otto had been detained at the Pyongyang airport while attempting to leave the country in January 2016 on charges of “hostile acts against the state.” He had allegedly attempted to steal a political poster while on a trip to the country from China. Otto later confessed to the charges against him.
Dawning the tan blazer the Otto wore during this confession, Warmbier called the confession “an amazing performance.”
He said that he is proud of Otto, who he described as a “sweet, kind, loving person.”
“What did I say to my son: I knelt down by his side and I told him that I missed him and that I’m so glad he made it home… I proud of Otto and the courage he showed by going to North Korea and having that adventurous side to him. And, so, the fact that he was taken and treated this way is horrible and it’s tough to process. But, we’re tremendously proud of him,” said Warmbier.
Tillerson said Tuesday that the State Department was working to secure the release of the three more American citizens still held by North Korea. “It’s a delicate matter. We’re working on it,” he said.