Portman: North Korea shows 'complete failure to recognize fundamental human rights'

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman called North Korea an international "pariah" in a Wednesday address to the United States Senate, echoing language used by the parents of deceased former North Korean detainee Otto Warmbier.

Warmbier, a 22-year-old Wyoming native, died Monday at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

Prior to his June 13 return to Cincinnati, he had been sentenced to 15 years hard labor for crimes against the North Korean state -- allegedly for stealing a propaganda poster while on vacation -- and imprisoned in the infamously reclusive nation for 17 months.

By the time the United States extracted him, North Korean authorities said he had been comatose for over a year.

"Otto's detainment and sentence were unnecessary and appalling," Portman said Wednesday. "Neither one should have ever happened in the first place. At some point soon after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, from what we know, Otto suffered a severe brain injury. From what? We don't know, and we may never know."

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Portman's six-minute speech contrasted Warmbier's academic accomplishments and love of travel with North Korea's "complete failure to recognize fundamental human rights" in its treatment of him as a prisoner. This failure, he said, extends to supreme leader Kim Jong-un's treatment of his own people.

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"They have subjected hundreds of thousands of their own people to mistreatment, torture and death for decades," he said. "They are now extending that treatment to innocent Americans. North Korea should be universally condemned for its abhorrent behavior and held accountable for their actions."

Portman concluded the address by encouraging his fellow senators to take action against North Korea, although he did not say what form that action or condemnation should take.

“I urge my colleagues and everybody listening at home (to) continue to hold this family up in prayer,” Portman said. “But also let’s ensure that this tragedy is a wake-up call about the true nature of this brutal regime.”

The United States has no formal diplomatic relations with North Korea, and the State Department has cautioned American travelers against visiting North Korea for years.

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