U.S. President Donald Trump said he takes Kim Jong Un’s word that he didn’t know about the mistreatment of Otto Warmbier — the American college student who died after being imprisoned in North Korea.
In December 2015, Warmbier, who was 21 at the time, was arrested in North Korea during an organized tour and charged with stealing a propaganda poster. He was imprisoned for more than a year and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour. He was finally sent home to his parents in the United States in July 2017 — but was in a coma. He died a few days later.
His family said he was “brutally tortured” while in prison.
Speaking in Vietnam on Thursday, after his summit with Kim fell apart, Trump said he spoke with Kim about Warmbier’s death and the North Korean leader feels “badly about it.”
He said does not hold the North Korea leader responsible for Warmbier’s death, adding he “does not believe he [Kim] would have allowed that to happen.”
“I don’t believe he knew about it,” Trump said. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Prisons are rough, they’re rough places, and bad things happened.”
After Warmbier’s death in 2017, Trump said he promised to “handle” North Korea.
During Trump’s 2018 State of the Union, he said Warmbier’s parents were “powerful witnesses” to North Korea’s horrors.
“After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labour, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death,” Trump said.
This is another instance in which Trump has believed the denial of an autocratic leader at face value. For example, in 2018 Trump took the word of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who said he did not have a role in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. However, Trump’s intelligence committee concluded the crown prince ordered the assassination.
But Trump repeatedly said that the crown prince denied any involvement in the journalist’s death.
“Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t,” Trump said.
Months before this, Trump also sided with Vladimir Putin after the Russian president denied Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. But the U.S. intelligence committee concluded that Russia did interfere with the election.
“I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today,” Trump said a joint July media conference with Putin in Helsinki.
“I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” he said.
Last year, Warmbier’s parents filed a $1-billion wrongful death lawsuit against the North Korea government in 2018. Fred and Cindy Warmbier said the North Korean government tortured and killed their son.
In the lawsuit, they said their son was “taken hostage, kept as a prisoner for political purposes, used as a pawn and singled out for exceptionally harsh and brutal treatment by Kim Jong Un. Kim and his regime have portrayed themselves as innocent, while they intentionally destroyed our son’s life.”
The lawsuit also described in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier endured in North Korean custody.
It said when his parents boarded a plane to see him upon arrival in the U.S., they were “stunned to see his condition.”
The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family’s attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained wound on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electrocution.
A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, likely from a loss of blood flow to the brain.
A U.S. court ruled that North Korea has to pay the family $501 million in the wrongful death lawsuit.
— With files from the Associated Press
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