When President Donald Trump learned of American college student and North Korean prisoner Otto Warmbier’s dire medical condition, he immediately sent a plane to land in Pyongyang and bring home the 22-year-old without asking North Korea’s permission first, says a report from GQ.
In early June of 2017, Trump-appointed U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Joseph Yun learned that Warmbier was unconscious. “I was completely shocked,” said Yun of learning the news. “I came back immediately, and I told Secretary Tillerson … and we determined at the time that we needed to get him and the other prisoners out as soon as possible, and I should contact Pyongyang and say I wanted to come right away.”
“When Trump learned of Otto’s condition, he doubled down on the order for Yun to rush to Pyongyang and bring Otto home,” says the report. “The North Koreans were unilaterally informed that an American plane would soon land in Pyongyang and that United States diplomats and doctors would get off.”
An anonymous State Department official said the president sounded like a “dad” when learning of the news. He was determined to retrieve Warmbier and bring him back to his parents as soon as humanly possible.
“The president was very invested in bringing Otto home,” the official told GQ. “Listening to him deliberate on this, he sounded to me a lot more like a dad.”
But, of course, there was risk involved. “We were very scared,” said the official. As noted in the report, “though the North Koreans eventually said the plane would be able to land, no one knew what kind of welcome the Americans would receive on the ground.”
“The North Koreans said we could send a delegation to see Otto, but that we would have to discuss some of the conditions of getting him out once we got there,” explained Yun.
The team was assembled to rescue Warmbier, and the official go-ahead from State was given by Friday afternoon. When the team landed in Pyongyang, they were met with a “busload of soldiers.”
“Yun engaged in several rounds of intense negotiations with North Korean officials, trying to win Otto’s freedom,” says the report, though he was met with resistance from the North Koreans. After finally getting a chance to see Warmbier, Yun was so shocked by the young man’s poor condition that he wasn’t immediately convinced that the person he was looking at was indeed Warmbier.
Negotiations for Warmbier’s release continued into the night, per the report. In a last ditch effort, Yun told the “North Koreans we would leave with or without Otto. I felt there was no point in dragging on. I was 90 percent sure they would release him, and that this call would bring an action forcing them to do so.”
Finally, they agreed to release Warmbier. “The Americans returned to the hospital, and a North Korean judge in a black suit commuted Otto’s sentence. Then the U.S. motorcade and the ambulance raced directly to the airport, through open security gates, and onto the tarmac where the Gulfstream waited. When the plane cleared North Korean airspace, the celebration was muted. The team knew they would soon have to face the heartbreak of turning Otto over to his parents,” the report says.
The Warmbiers were reunited with their son in June of 2017. Father Fred Warmbier publicly thanked President Trump and criticized the Obama Administration for their failed strategy of “strategic patience.”
“When Otto was first taken, we were advised by the past administration to take a low profile while they worked to obtain his release,” said Mr. Warmbier, per The Week. “We did so without result. Earlier this year, Cindy and I decided the time for strategic patience was over. … It is my understanding that [Special Representative for North Korea Policy Joseph Y. Yun] and his team, at the direction of the president, aggressively pursued resolution of the situation.”
“I think the results speak for themselves,” he said when asked if the Obama Administration could have done more to save his son.