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Otto Warmbier's Parents Challenge North Korea's Explanation For Son's Injury


The parents and doctors of Otto Warmbier spoke out publicly today for the first time since he returned from North Korea in a coma. Warmbier was jailed more than a year ago for reportedly stealing a propaganda poster. Ann Thompson of WVXU reports.

ANN THOMPSON, BYLINE: After a battery of tests, doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center say Otto Warmbier is in a state of unresponsive wakefulness, meaning he shows no signs of understanding his surroundings, and he has not spoken. He has suffered extensive loss of tissue in all regions of the brain, but they don't believe it's due to head trauma. Instead, Dr. Jordan Bonomo believes it could've been triggered from a lack of oxygen.


JORDAN BONOMO: We do see respiratory arrest from overdose - from medication overdose - intentional and otherwise. It would be inappropriate for me to speculate about the intent or whether this was a misadministration of a medication. Again, we have very limited information about what happened to Otto prior to his departure from North Korea.

THOMPSON: That limited information comes from a brain scan that accompanied Warmbier on his way home. According to Dr. Daniel Kanter, the MRI dates from April 2016.

DANIEL KANTER: Based upon our analysis of those images, the brain injury likely occurred in the preceding weeks. At the request of the family, information regarding his prognosis, prospects for improvement and future care and treatment will remain confidential.

THOMPSON: In the few days since Warmbier has been back in the U.S., his parents have been at his bedside. They say they're relieved their son is back in Cincinnati in the arms of those who love him but are angry he was brutally treated for so long. At a news conference this morning, Fred Warmbier said he only learned a week ago Otto was unconscious and had been for more than a year.


FRED WARMBIER: I know you have many questions about what transpired. So do we. We have few answers. There's no excuse for the way the North Koreans treated our son.

THOMPSON: Warmbier says he worked behind the scenes with U.S. and Swedish officials to get his son out. He made more than a dozen trips to Washington, D.C., relying on what he calls false promises from the Obama administration that the North Koreans would treat Otto fairly and let him go. He thanked the Trump administration for getting the job done and had this message for the North Korean government.


WARMBIER: I would say, I'm so proud of Otto, my son, who has been in a pariah regime for the last 18 months, brutalized and terrorized. And he's now home with his family. And I'm just tremendously proud of Otto. His spirit is with us. And I can share my spirit with his spirit. And I'm just so happy for that.

THOMPSON: Warmbier called on North Korea to release the other Americans being held there. He says no family should have to endure what he has. For NPR News, I'm Ann Thompson in Cincinnati.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEARLY ORATORIO SONG, "OCCLUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

With more than 30 years of journalism experience in the Greater Cincinnati market, Ann Thompson brings a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported for WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV, Metro Networks and CBS/ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2019 and 2011 A-P named her “Best Reporter” for large market radio in Ohio. She has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. Ann reports regularly on science and technology in Focus on Technology.