It took months of "quiet diplomacy", a change in USA presidents and an American diplomat's extraordinary, secret visit to Pyongyang to bring Otto Warmbier home. The last such visit is believed to have been in November 2014, when former National Intelligence Director James Clapper brought home two other jailed Americans.
Former NBA star Dennis Rodman has returned from what he described as a "really good" trip to North Korea, though it is unknown if during his fifth visit to the hermit state he met with its leader, Kim Jong-un, who he once called "a friend for life".
North Korean officials said Warmbier, 22, had fallen into a coma after he contracted botulism and was given a sleeping pill.
North Korea's top nuclear negotiator Madame Choi Sun Hee has secretly met with US officials in Pyongyang and European cities to establish a diplomatic channel and orchestrate the release of prisoners, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
Warmbier, 22, spent nearly a year-and-a-half in captivity after being arrested in January 2016.
Warmbier had been in a coma for more than a year, but this was only revealed by North Korea last week.
What happened next, and how Warmbier ended up in a coma, is still unclear.
"Rodman was not involved in the release, but he's got a channel there, and maybe he'll come back and say something that sheds some light on why this man in North Korea is so erratic". But the family has dismissed that explanation.
Though Warmbier supposedly had been in a coma for more than a year, the US didn't learn the full extent of his condition until Yun and the doctors saw him in a Pyongyang hospital.
North Korea has been raising tensions in the area as it continues to experiment with developing a long-range missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.
But "what this accumulation of detainees reveals is that North Korea is a risky place, it is easy to step over some line", Haggard said, adding he was increasingly in favor of a tourism ban because the "hostages" were a liability for the USA government. Shortly after the Swedish visits, the North reached out to the US with an urgent request to meet in person.
Rodman also visited iconic North Korean monuments and coached a womens basketball team. Over the next days, officials said, Tillerson and Trump discussed the case. "The message is that the only way forward is through engagement", North Korea expert Ken Gause told the Yonhap news agency.
He also said the United Nations should demand a full investigation into the Warmbier debacle, but he predicted North Korea won't cooperate.
"I know the answer to that", State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said - but then she wouldn't say. "Can you understand what he did in this country?"