North Korea has issued its first comments on the death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who had been held by Pyongyang for more than a year before his June 13 release, calling the 22-year-old’s passing “a mystery” and labeling themselves as “the biggest victim of this incident.”
Warmbier’s family announced his death Monday, with his father blaming it on the “awful, torturous mistreatment … at the hands of the North Koreans.” The onetime University of Virginia student, who was released in a coma, was freed on “humanitarian grounds,” the North said earlier.
In a statement carried Friday by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman denied that Pyongyang had tortured or beaten Warmbier, saying that it was the victim of a “smear campaign” and that U.S. doctors could attest to their claims.
“As for the groundless public opinion now circulating in the U.S. that he died of torture and beating during his reform through labor, the American doctors who came to the DPRK for repatriation of Warmbier will have something to say about it,” the spokesman was quoted as saying.
“The fact that Warmbier died suddenly in less than a week just after his return to the U.S. in his normal state of health indicators is a mystery to us as well,” it added.
Warmbier was arrested while visiting the reclusive country as a tourist. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for trying to steal an item bearing a propaganda slogan from his hotel, state media said at the time.
U.S. President Donald Trump also blamed Pyongyang, condemning “the brutality of the North Korean regime.”
Doctors at the hospital where Warmbier was treated after his return to the U.S. said he had suffered a severe neurological injury from an unknown cause. His family has said they were told he had been in a coma since shortly after he was sentenced in March of last year.
North Korea reportedly claimed that he fell ill from botulism sometime after the trial and had been in a coma after taking a sleeping pill.
“Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatments and care with all sincerity on humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S., considering that his health got worse,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding that the country’s doctors had even “brought him back alive” after his heart “nearly stopped.”
Warmbier, the spokesman said, was “a victim of the policy of strategic patience” of former U.S. President Barack Obama, who “was engrossed in utmost hostility and negation against the DPRK and refused to have dialogue with the DPRK.”
DPRK is the acronym for the North’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“To make it clear, we are the biggest victim of this incident and there would be no more foolish judgment than to think we do not know how to calculate gains and losses,” the spokesman said.
“The smear campaign against DPRK staged in the U.S. compels us to make firm determination that humanitarianism and benevolence for the enemy are a taboo and we should further sharpen the blade of law,” the spokesman added.
Separately, Kyodo News, citing a South Korean activist with extensive ties to the North, said that Warmbier had been detained for wrapping his dirty shoes in a state-run newspaper carrying a photograph of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un.
The report could not be independently verified.
The North has conducted a spate of nuclear tests and missile launches since last year that have stoked soaring tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and Warmbier’s death was expected to put a damper on any attempt to cool the heated rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.
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