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US College Student Evacuated from North Korean Prison in Coma


FILE - American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 29, 2016.

An American college student held in North Korea for 17 months has returned home.

Twenty-two-year-old Otto Warmbier was immediately transported to a hospital after the airplane carrying him from North Korea landed in Cincinnati, Ohio late Tuesday night. Warmbier's parents said their son has been in a coma for more than a year, and described his release as a medical evacuation.

North Korea had sentenced Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, to a 15-year prison term for attempting to steal a propaganda poster.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were told their son was given a sleeping pill shortly after his trial last March, and he never woke up.

State Department officials refused to comment on Warmbier’s health, citing department guidelines, but said the last time the U.S. had any access to Warmbier, through the Swedish Embassy, was March of last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the State Department secured Warmbier’s release at the direction of President Donald Trump. Officials said it follows a flurry of diplomatic activity, including a high-profile visit to Pyongyang by the department’s special envoy to North Korea.

Emmett Saulnier, Warmbier’s roommate at the University of Virginia, told VOA Warmbier’s parents called him early Tuesday, before news broke of Warmbier’s release, to let him know his friend would be returning.

“He was one of my best friends for two and a half years. We were roommates. We both went to the business school at UVA. I stayed in touch with his parents. We called once in a while,” Saulnier said.

WATCH: Tillerson on Release of Warmbier

Tillerson: North Korea Prisoner ‘On His Way Home’
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The announcement of Warmbier’s release came as former professional basketball star Dennis Rodman travelled Tuesday to North Korea on a trip he said he hopes will “open a door” between U.S. President Donald Trump and leaders in Pyongyang.

Rodman previously traveled to North Korea in 2013, where he organized a pick-up basketball game that included other former National Basketball Association stars, and sang "Happy Birthday" to Kim.

Kim is reportedly a basketball fan, and in particular a fan of the Chicago Bulls championship team Rodman played on in the late 1990s

Denise Koesterman and Alison Lebrun, right, both of Cincinnati, hang ribbons in honor of Otto Warmbier's homecoming in the Wyoming neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, June 13, 2017.
Denise Koesterman and Alison Lebrun, right, both of Cincinnati, hang ribbons in honor of Otto Warmbier's homecoming in the Wyoming neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, June 13, 2017.

The State Department said it is aware of Rodman’s visit, but that Rodman is travelling as a “private citizen.”

“Dennis Rodman has nothing to do with the release of Mr. Warmbier,” said State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert. “I don't know why he went to North Korea.”

Nauert also warned Americans against traveling to North Korea, a caution that was echoed by former U.S. government officials.

“The travel warnings by the State Department are not working,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former official at both the State and Treasury departments.

Now with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Ruggiero suggested a travel ban of some sort might be in order.

“We’re talking about a very volatile situation,” he said. “We have no idea – our protecting power – has no idea how many Americans are in North Korea at any one time.”

The State Department says it is continuing to try to secure the release of three other Americans imprisoned in North Korea.

VOA State Department Correspondent Nike Ching and National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.