Otto Warmbier is now home, after being released from a North Korean prison after 18 months. But he’s returned home in a coma. His father speaks of his love and support from the community.
Liz Dufour

CINCINNATI — At first glance, the United States seemingly can’t do anything about North Korea’s treatment of college student Otto Warmbier.

Three other Americans are detained there, and officials don’t want to jeopardize their safety. Plus, the unpredictable regime has nuclear weapons, and the U.S. doesn’t want to provoke use of those missiles on ally South Korea.

“It’s a matter of leverage. And we’ve got fairly minimal leverage,” said Richard Harknett, head of the University of Cincinnati’s political science department. “This is the most sanctioned country, practically, in the world. There’s not much else we can do.”

But some say Americans, particularly those in government, can do more:

• They can speak out publicly about North Korea instead of staying quiet.

• They can put public pressure on North Korea’s ally, China.

• They can change the long-term policy under both Republican and Democratic administrations of silence.

• They can be more aggressive to bring others home to prevent them from suffering severe brain damage.

After a year of remaining silent, Warmbier’s parents began appearing on prime-time news shows, demanding that more be done to bring home their son.

That may have put more pressure on both Washington and Pyongyang, but complaints from high-ranking officials would have worked better, said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. Governments respond to “pressure, embarrassment and exposure.”

► His condition: Can Otto Warmbier recover from ‘unresponsive wakefulness?’
► Doctors: Otto Warmbier has suffered a ‘severe neurological injury’

For years, the State Department has worked privately to negotiate the release of Americans detained in Korea, often working through an intermediary such as Sweden, which has had an embassy in the country since 1970. Government officials in the know are told not to say anything publicly that might provoke North Korean retaliation against U.S. citizens.

Eventually, the approach usually works. 

“We can’t guarantee that we can get people back, so we encourage you not to go.”

Heather Nauert, U.S. State Department

In Warmbier’s case, it didn’t. His situation represents the worst outcome for any American whom North Korea has detained.

Much remains unknown about what happened to Warmbier, but he reportedly has been in a coma for more than a year. Brain scans show severe damage.

Cincinnati doctors Thursday described his condition as “unresponsive wakefulness.” 

Warmbier, a native of the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, Ohio, was a 21-year-old University of Virginia student when he visited North Korea with a tour group in late 2015. He was detained as the group was preparing to leave the country in early 2016 and charged with engaging in anti-state activity.

He was held for a year and a half. His family got one letter from him, dated March 2, 2016, and then nothing. He was photographed March 16, 2016, as North Korea’s highest court sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor after he supposedly confessed to trying to take a propaganda banner home with him.

“We tried to stay low,” Warmbier’s dad, Fred Warmbier, told reporters Thursday morning. “We were advised that it was important that you don’t upset the North Koreans. We followed that logic.”

► His return: U.S. college student released by North Korea arrives back in Ohio
► About Otto:: Who is the student released from North Korea?

But nothing happened.

So, Fred Warmbier and his wife decided to start talking. They gave interviews to Fox News Channel’s Tucker Carlson and The Washington Post, among others.

Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia undergraduate who was arrested in early 2016 in North Korea, speaks during a news conference June 15, 2017, in the Cincinnati suburb of Wyoming, Ohio. (Photo: John Minchillo, AP)

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