Asia Pacific

After rebuke from Warmbier family, Trump says comments were 'misinterpreted'

Bloomberg, AP, AFP-JIJI, Staff Report

The parents of Otto Warmbier rejected President Donald Trump’s comments that he took North Korea’s Kim Jong Un “at his word” in denying responsibility for the torture and death of their son.

Hours after the Warmbiers released their statement, Trump responded with a tweet saying that his comments on their son’s death had been “misinterpreted,” though he didn’t explain how.

“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement released Friday. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”

Trump later took issue with their rebuke, saying in a series of tweets that “I got Otto out” of imprisonment and “Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death.” He added that Warmbier “will not have died in vain.”

But while insisting that he held North Korea responsible for the student’s death, he did so without directly blaming Kim — or even mentioning him.

After a meeting in Hanoi on Thursday that ended without progress on eliminating North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, Trump told reporters that Kim “felt bad” about the imprisonment and torture of Warmbier, who died shortly after returning to the U.S. in a coma after being detained for more than 17 months.

“In those prisons and those camps you have a lot of people, and some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things,” Trump said. “But he tells me he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”

Warmbier, an Ohio native who studied at the University of Virginia, had traveled to North Korea on a tour. He was pulled away at the Pyongyang airport and charged with crimes against the state for allegedly taking down a propaganda poster in his hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. After lengthy negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, Warmbier was released but died a few days later on American soil.

In 2017, Trump took credit for obtaining Warmbier’s release.

“Otto was tortured beyond belief by North Korea,” Trump said at the time.

That year, he also labeled Kim a “madman who doesn’t mind starving or killing his people.”

The president had sought to forge a bond with the family as part of the U.S.-led “maximum pressure” campaign on the Kim regime in 2017 and early 2018 that helped lead to the June summit in Singapore, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. Trump called the family several times during that period, and Vice President Pence also maintained contact with the Warmbiers, media reports said, and the parents were among the guests of first lady Melania Trump at the 2018 State of the Union address, during which Trump cited their son’s death to highlight the cruelty of the Kim regime.

But the Warmbiers had been growing increasingly exasperated with Trump’s embrace of Kim since their first meeting, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing a person with close ties to the family.

Trump’s comments in Hanoi provoked immediate criticism from human rights advocates and both Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

“Look, the blood of Otto Warmbier is on Kim Jong Un’s hands,” Republican Sen. Cory Gardner said. “He’s responsible for the death. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.’

Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said the U.S. should “be unflinching and unapologetic in identifying, condemning, and punishing Kim’s human rights atrocities, including the torture and murder of Otto Warmbier.”

Some members of Congress compared Trump’s reluctance to criticize Kim with his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged role in the murder of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year, or to dispute Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial that his country interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump win.

“Our intel community is telling us what Putin knew about the election, what MBS knew about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and what Kim Jong Un knew about the brutalization and murder of Otto Warmbier,” said Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine. “And I don’t know why the president would want to come to the aid of people who have done these horrible things.’

After Warmbier’s death, the U.S. government supported his parents in a lawsuit against Pyongyang.

On Dec. 24, a U.S. judge ordered North Korea to pay $501 million over Warmbier’s death from apparent torture.

A judge said that Warmbier had been used “as a pawn in that totalitarian state’s global shenanigans and faceoff with the United States.”

Fred Warmbier described to Fox News in 2017 Otto’s condition when he returned: making an “involuntary, inhuman sound,” “staring blankly into space, jerking violently,” and was blind and deaf, with his head shaved.

Doctors in Cincinnati said he had suffered severe brain damage, although they weren’t sure what led to it. North Korea denied mistreating him, saying he fell into a coma that resulted from botulism and a sleeping pill.