US envoy: North Korea ‘has a lot of explaining to do’ over ill student

WTOP National Security Consultant JJ Green speaks with former UN Ambassador Bill Richardson about the release of Otto Warmbier

WASHINGTON — The release of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier in a coma is drawing harsh criticism from his family and calls for the immediate release of all Americans being held by the North Korean government.

Warmbier’s father, Fred Warmbier, expressed skepticism about the North Korean government’s reason for his son’s illness.

“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,” said Warmbier.

Former U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson’s foundation, the Richardson Center for Global Engagement, worked for the past year on securing Warmbier’s release. While crediting the U.S. State Department for obtaining Warmbier’s release, Richardson said North Korea needs to answer for Warmbier’s grave condition and its silence about it.

“The concern is that he’s a sick young man,” he said. “He’s in a coma and the North Koreans have a lot of explaining to do especially since he might have been in a coma for a year.”

Richardson told WTOP the North Korean envoys had ample opportunity and motivation to disclose his condition.

“We’ve been meeting with the North Koreans urging the release. We offered some humanitarian assistance flood assistance, paying for the remains of our soldiers and the North Korea’s never responded,” Richardson said.

Not only did they not tell representatives sent from his foundation, Richardson said, “As I understand it, they never told the Swedish government that represents us in North Korea, that he was ailing. And this is a violation of the Geneva Prisoner Accords.”

Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea for stealing a propaganda banner, during a trip there in early 2016. He had served one year when he was released this week.

Fred Warmbier said when he saw his son, he knelt down by his side, “and told him I loved him and I was so glad he made it.”

As a result of the severe circumstances involving Warmbier’s treatment, Richardson is calling for more sanctions against North Korea and immediate good faith action from that government.

Three other Americans are being held in North Korea. Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song, who worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, and Kim Dong-chul, a businessman are all facing long, harsh prison sentences.

Richardson called on North Korean leaders to “Explain why you did not disclose to the United States or to the Swedish government, the state of his (Warmbier’s) condition and then immediately release the three Americans being held.”

Former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman, who has established a relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, went there this week. “Maybe he is a channel,” Richardson said. “He’s the only American that’s talked to Kim Jong Un. Maybe Kim Jong Un is going to say something to him — to start a dialogue.

Richardson expressed concerned that Rodman is the possible interlocutor with Kim, but said, “He may be the only game in town. I always think that when any American can transmit a diplomatic message, it’s a good thing.”

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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