BEIJING — North Korea has released an American college student it imprisoned last year for stealing a propaganda poster from a Pyongyang hotel, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced on Tuesday.
Otto Warmbier, 22, was detained in the North Korean capital in January last year, accused of committing a "hostile act" while visiting the secretive state with a tour group. Two months later, the University of Virginia student, who is originally from Cincinnati, was sentenced to 15 years in prison and hard labor after a trial lasting just one hour.
At a tearful press conference in February 2016, Warmbier read a prepared statement saying he tried to take an "important political slogan from the staff-only area of the Yanggakdo International Hotel." He said he had been offered a car and membership in a secret society at his school if he brought the banner home. His statement was likely made under duress, and there's no way to confirm whether it's true.
Warmbier's release came on the same day that former basketball star Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea.
In a statement released by the State Department, Tillerson said Warmbier is en route to the US. He added that the government is still working to secure the release of three other US citizens detained in North Korea. Warmbier's parents told the Washington Post that he was in a coma, and had been medically evacuated via a US military base in Japan.
Andray Abrahamian, a North Korea researcher at Macquarie University, said Warmbier's release could be Pyongyang's way of signaling to Washington that it is open to negotiation.
"This is a really public way to send a positive signal to DC that deals can be made," he said.
It's unclear whether there is any link between Rodman's visit and Warmbier's release, but the latter coincides with the eccentric former NBA star's fifth visit to North Korea. Asked whether Rodman had been in touch with the US government before his trip or whether he was going in any official capacity, the US Embassy in Beijing did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The State Department declined on Monday night to comment on Rodman's trip. On Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that "Dennis Rodman had nothing to do with the release," adding that she had not spoken with Rodman and that the US "strongly, strongly suggest[s] that Americans do not go to North Korea."
In recent years, North Korea has only released detainees after visits from high-ranking former government officials, including former president Bill Clinton. After a 2014 trip to North Korea, Rodman criticized Kenneth Bae, an American missionary who was then being held in the country. Rodman lost his temper with a CNN interviewer who asked him whether he planned to advocate on Bae's behalf.
There are no details available on how Rodman's current trip came about. It is unknown whether he asked to return, or was invited back by North Korean officials. Rodman has described North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a dictator whose government regularly threatens the US with nuclear strikes, as a "friend."
North Korea has dialed up military provocations since President Donald Trump took office, conducing multiple missile tests despite facing increasingly stringent international sanctions.
Some North Korean government ministries have been enthusiastic about engaging with Rodman at a time of increased tensions with Washington over the country's nuclear program, according to analysts with knowledge of Rodman's previous trips.
"The North Korean Foreign Ministry recently has been seeking ways to reduce tensions with the US, and the ministry believed that now would be a good time [for him] to visit," said Daniel A. Pinkston, an international relations lecturer at Troy University who has advised Rodman in the past. Pinkston added that the North Korean government also prizes sports promotion.
Such trips generally take months to put together, and involve high-level approval in North Korea.
Approached by reporters during a stopover in Beijing on his way to Pyongyang, Rodman declined to answer questions about the specific goals of his trip.
Not all groups in North Korea are happy to have Rodman back, Abrahamian said.
"There was some bureaucratic conflict over Rodman," he said. "Some groups saw it as a potential opportunity to reach out to the US, and others saw him as a potential problem ... The fact that he's been invited suggests that Kim Jong Un is at least not unhappy to have him back, though I'm not sure they'll meet."
John Hudson contributed reporting from Washington, DC.