Warmbier family says Kim Jong-un’s regime responsible for son’s death
Trump says North Korean leader felt ‘very badly’ about the 22-year-old student’s death
Otto Warmbier on his way to North Korea’s top court in Pyongyang. Photograph: Kyodo/via Reuters
The parents of Otto Warmbier, the American student who died after being detained in North Korea, have said that Kim Jong-un’s regime was responsible for their son’s death, in an implicit rebuke of US president Donald Trump.
At a news conference following the collapse of talks with the North Korean leader in Hanoi, Mr Trump said Mr Kim had told him that he felt “very badly” about Mr Warmbier’s death. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Mr Trump said of the North Korean leader.
The 22-year-old American student was arrested in 2016 in North Korea, allegedly for theft and for hanging a propaganda poster during a visit to the communist state. He was detained and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour having been found guilty of “crimes against the state”. He was released in June 2017 following negotiations between US and North Korean officials in the early months of the Trump presidency, but returned to the US in a vegetative state and died within days.
In a statement issued on Friday, Fred and Cindy Warmbier said the North Korean leader was responsible for their son’s death.
“We have been respectful during this summit process,” they said in a statement. “Now we must speak out. 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 excuse or lavish praise can change that.”
The Warmbiers attended the State of the Union address in 2018 as Mr Trump’s guests, months after their son died.
As the controversy over Mr Trump’s comments on the Warmbier death intensified on Friday, the president’s adviser, Kellyanne Conway, said he did blame North Korea for the University of Virginia student’s death.
“Of course, [Mr Trump] holds North Korea responsible. He has deep affection and shares the grief with the Warmbier family,” she said on Fox News. “What the president is saying is that there’s no indication chairman Kim knew what happened to Otto Warmbier when it happened.”
Mr Trump’s comment that he believed Mr Kim’s claim that he knew nothing about Mr Warmbier’s death was one of the surprise outcomes of the Hanoi summit, which ended abruptly on Thursday after the two sides failed to reach agreement on a denuclearisation deal.
“I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it,” Mr Trump said of the student’s treatment. “I don’t believe that he [Kim] would have allowed that to happen.”
His comments received pushback from even some of Mr Trump’s supporters.
Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted: “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. Our hearts are with the Warmbier family for their strength and courage. We will never forget Otto.”
The notion that Mr Kim, who rules one of the most repressive regimes in the world, did not know about Mr Warmbier’s treatment was dismissed by several Republicans. “I personally find that statement extremely hard to believe,” senator Susan Collins of Maine told CNN.
“We had very substantive negotiations with Kim Jong-un – we know what they want and they know what we must have. Relationship very good, let’s see what happens!”
Despite high hopes for the summit, the two-day meeting ended without agreement after the United States refused to grant sanction relief to the country in exchange for North Korea closing one of its nuclear sites.
Both sides have blamed the other for the collapse, with North Korean officials stating that they demanded only partial easing of sanctions, contradicting Mr Trump’s claim that the country wanted all sanctions lifted.