US student suffered 'extensive' brain damage in North Korea

2017-06-16 16:00
Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old college student who was released from a North Korean prison on Tuesday, holds a press conference while wearing the jacket his son wore when he gave a forced confession in North Korea June 15, 2017 in Wyoming, Ohio. (AFP)

Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old college student who was released from a North Korean prison on Tuesday, holds a press conference while wearing the jacket his son wore when he gave a forced confession in North Korea June 15, 2017 in Wyoming, Ohio. (AFP)

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Chicago - Doctors treating Otto Warmbier, the US student released by North Korea in a coma this week, say the 22-year-old has suffered severe brain damage, as his father lashed out at the reclusive regime.

Warmbier suffered extensive tissue loss in all regions of the brain, doctors said, but he showed no signs of physical trauma and medical tests offered no conclusive evidence as to the cause of his neurological injuries.

His father, Fred Warmbier, hit out at Kim Jong-Un's authoritarian regime which kept the family in the dark, with little to no news for much of the young man's imprisonment.

It was only a week ago that they were told he had been in a coma since shortly after he was incarcerated in March 2016 for stealing a political poster from a hotel.

"Even if you believe their explanation of botulism and a sleeping pill causing the coma - and we don't," Warmbier told a news conference earlier on Thursday in the family's home city of Cincinnati, Ohio, "there is no excuse for any civilised nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long."

"I call on them to release the other Americans being held," he urged, referring to three US citizens still in North Korea.

Warmbier's doctors at the UC Health University of Cincinnati Medical Center said the young man was able to breathe on his own, but his neurological state was best described "as a state of unresponsive wakefulness".

"He has spontaneous eye opening and blinking. However, he shows no signs of understanding language, responding to verbal commands or awareness of his surroundings," neurologist Daniel Kanter said.

The medical team said Warmbier's severe brain injury was most likely - given his young age - to have been caused by cardiopulmonary arrest cutting the blood supply to the brain.

But they could not definitively say what could have caused such an event, saying they had found no signs of a botulism infection - the explanation given by the North Korean regime for how the young man fell into a coma.

Trump call 

In a one-line statement earlier on Thursday on the state-run Korean Central News Agency, North Korea said it had released Warmbier "on humanitarian grounds".

The university student had been on a tourist trip when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years hard labour, a punishment the US decried as far out of proportion to his alleged crime, accusing the North of using him as a political pawn.

His release came amid tensions with Washington following a series of missile tests by Pyongyang, focusing attention on an arms build-up that Pentagon chief Jim Mattis this week dubbed "a clear and present danger to all".

Washington has stepped up pressure on China and other foreign powers to enforce existing UN sanctions on North Korea, and has deployed increased military assets of its own in the region.

Fred Warmbier expressed gratitude for the US administration's efforts in his son's favour, and said he spoke personally with US President Donald Trump late on Wednesday night.

"He was very candid and it was a nice conversation," he said, adding that Trump expressed concern for the family's wellbeing.

The young man's release came after a flurry of secret diplomatic contacts, which culminated in Joseph Yun, the State Department's special envoy to North Korea, travelling to Pyongyang.

While there, Yun also met with the three other Americans being held, who include two men who taught at a Pyongyang university funded by overseas Christian groups, and a Korean-American pastor who was accused of espionage for the South.

Warmbier's evacuation also coincided with the arrival in Pyongyang of flamboyant retired NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman - a former contestant on Trump's "Celebrity Apprentice" reality show.

Fred Warmbier echoed the message of US officials, who have said Rodman played no role in the release.

"Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with Otto," he said. "It's a diversion, I'm sure."

The student's father also criticised the previous administration of Barack Obama for not having done more for their son.

He said officials had counselled the family to not speak out about Otto's detention, to avoid antagonising the reclusive regime of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.

"We relied on this false premise that they would treat Otto fairly and let him go," Warmbier said. "The results speak for themselves."

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