WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS) - The parents of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died after being detained for 17 months in North Korea, on Friday (March 1) directly blamed leader Kim Jong Un for their son’s death a day after President Donald Trump said he believed Kim’s account that he was not responsible.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement. “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.”
Trump said at a news conference in Hanoi that Kim felt “very badly” about Otto Warmbier’s death in 2017, several days after being released in a coma from captivity in North Korea.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump said, responding to a question from a Washington Post reporter.
The White House said on Friday, in response to the Warmbier family's criticism, that Trump "agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death.”
In December, the Warmbier family won a US$500 million (S$670 million) judgment in federal court against North Korea, with a judge ruling that the Kim regime was responsible for the torture and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier, then 21, was detained in Pyongyang in January 2016 after taking part in an organised tour of North Korea. He was accused of taking a propaganda poster.
In 2017, Trump had railed against the Kim regime for its treatment of Warmbier and he invited Warmbier’s parents to attend the 2018 State of the Union address as guests of the first lady.
Fred Warmbier joined Vice-President Mike Pence at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018, where Pence met with North Korean defectors. Trump called the family shortly ahead of his first nuclear disarmament summit with Kim in Singapore last June.
But the president abruptly shifted his tone on Kim after that first meeting. Since then, Trump has touted a warm relationship with Kim, telling a campaign audience last fall that the two “fell in love” over an exchange of personal letters.
During their two-day nuclear summit in Hanoi, Trump referred to Kim as “my friend” in a tweet and praised their relationship. The summit ended early, however, when talks broke down without a deal.
“I really believe something horrible happened to him, and I really don’t think the top leadership knew about it,” Trump said in Hanoi this week. “I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
Trump’s defence of Kim drew widespread pushback, including from congressional Republicans.
“I do not see the leader of North Korea as somebody who’s a friend,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican, said.
“We know what happened to Otto. We know what this country has done. I support the president in his effort to denuclearise them, but I do not have a misbelief of who this leader is.”
The Warmbier family has continued to speak out about Otto’s death but they have kept clear of commenting on Trump’s approach to the nuclear negotiations.
In an interview from Hanoi on Thursday with Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump called Kim “a character” and a “real personality,” praising him as “sharp as you can be.”
“He’s a real leader, and he’s pretty mercurial,” Trump said.
“I like him. Some people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t like him.’ I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I like him?’ We get along great.”