WASHINGTON — Sen. Rob Portman held an unusual and secret meeting with North Korean officials in New York last December, part of a broader effort to secure Otto Warmbier’s release, the Ohio Republican said Wednesday.
Portman’s meeting with North Korea’s delegation to the United Nations came as Warmbier was almost one year into his imprisonment in that repressive dictatorship. Portman said he asked the North Korean officials for information about Warmbier’s status and pressed them for his release.
"They said they’d take it back,” Portman recounted of his tête-à-tête, which was first reported by the Columbus Dispatch.
Warmbier, a 22-year-old Wyoming native, was released last week in a coma, and his parents announced on Monday that he had died at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center. Portman and other public officials plan to attend Warmbier’s memorial service in Wyoming on Thursday.
Portman declined to say on Wednesday where in New York his meeting with the North Koreans took place or to provide other details.
"I did go to New York and meet with North Korean officials. It was with the mission to the United Nations, That's the only North Korean presence in our country," Portman told The Enquirer.
At least one Trump administration official will attend Warmbier’s memorial service on Thursday: Joseph Yun, a State Department special envoy who was key to securing Warmbier’s release.
Yun engaged in secret talks with North Korean officials and learned earlier this month that Warmbier was in a coma, according to an Associated Press account of his role. He flew to Pyongyang with two doctors and saw Warmbier in a hospital there. The AP reported that Yun then demanded the Wyoming student’s release, and Warmbier was flown to a U.S. base in Japan the next day.
Yun had been scheduled to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday about U.S.-North Korea relations. But that session was postponed so Yun could attend Warmbier's funeral, said Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking Democrat on that committee.