Sen. Rob Portman met secretly last December with North Korean’s delegation to the United Nations in an effort to gain the release of or at least get information about Otto Warmbier, the Cincinnati-area man who was imprisoned by the North Korean government and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a poster.
Warmbier, who was detained for nearly a year and a half, was released last week in a vegetative state. He died Monday.
Portman, an Ohio Republican, will be attending the Wyoming, Ohio, resident's memorial service Thursday, as will Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R–Cincinnati.
In a coffee with constituents Wednesday, Portman spoke emotionally about Warmbier, mentioning that he secretly visited with the North Korean representatives in December that had been closely coordinated with the U.S. State Department. Portman brought photos of Warmbier to the meeting in New York, and urged the North Korean government to allow the Swedish ambassador to North Korea — the U.S.’ main contact with that government — to meet with Warmbier. The Swedish ambassador had met with Warmbier shortly before his March 2016 trial, but had not been permitted to see him at all after Warmbier was convicted during the one–hour proceeding in Pyongyang.
Warmbier, 22, was a student at the University of Virginia visiting North Korea as a tourist when he was arrested. The North Korean government explained his condition by saying he had developed botulism and then been given a sleeping pill —an account of which U.S. officials are deeply skeptical.
Portman said in the months after that New York meeting, he continued to reach out. His efforts, he said, were futile.
“I feel like I did not succeed in getting him home in the kind of condition we had hoped for,” he said. “But we got him home.”
In meeting with representatives of North Korea, Portman took an exceedingly rare step; very few U.S. officials are in contact with the secretive government.
Portman, who visited Warmbier in the hospital Sunday, said his initial response has been entirely focused on providing support to the family as they prepare to honor the young man. But in the long term, he said he advocates boycotts of Chinese companies that do business with the North Koreans, saying sanctions have not been sufficient. He said military options are limited. And he said he was frustrated that there was “no effective line of communication” that allowed U.S. officials to determine that Warmbier was in such dire condition.
Speaking on the Senate floor later Wednesday, Portman said North Korea told no one about the severe injury that left Warmbier incapacitated for 15 months. “They denied him the medical access that he deserved,” he said, saying the regime “demonstrated a complete failure to understand fundamental human rights.”
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