Trump accepts Kim's claim he was unaware of US student Warmbier's torture in North Korea

VIDEO: REUTERS
US college student Otto Warmbier died after being detained in North Korea for more than 17 months.
US college student Otto Warmbier died after being detained in North Korea for more than 17 months.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - President Donald Trump said he takes Mr Kim Jong Un "at his word" that he wasn't aware of North Korea's imprisonment and torture of United States college student Otto Warmbier, who died after being detained for more than 17 months.

Mr Trump told reporters that he had discussed the Warmbier case with Mr Kim before the leaders' hastily adjourned second summit in Hanoi on Thursday (Feb 28) and that the dictator assured him he learnt of Mr Warmbier's treatment only after the fact.

"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," Mr Trump said. "But he tells me he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word."

Mr Trump said Mr Kim "felt bad" about the episode.

Mr Warmbier was a 21-year-old University of Virginia junior on a group tour when he was seized by North Korean authorities in January 2016 and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster praising dictator Kim Jong Il, Mr Kim Jong Un's father.

He was initially sentenced to 15 years of hard labour, but was returned to the US in June 2017 in a comatose state - brain dead, blind and deaf. He died shortly afterwards in Ohio, his home state.

At the time, Mr Trump called his treatment "a disgrace" and said that the North Korean government was a "brutal regime.

 
 
 
 

American authorities were told Mr Warmbier had been in a coma for more than a year of his imprisonment, since April 2016 - two months after being forced to recite a videotaped confession in which he said he took the poster at the behest of the CIA and an Ohio church.

North Korea said Mr Warmbier become ill from botulism, but American doctors found no evidence of that.

A federal judge in December awarded US$500 million (S$674 million) in damages to Mr Warmbier's family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the North Korean government.

"What happened is horrible. I really believe something very bad happened to him, and I don't think that the top leadership knew about it," Mr Trump said in Hanoi on Thursday.

As for Mr Kim, specifically, Mr Trump added: "I don't believe that he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn't to his advantage to allow that to happen."

It is not the first time Mr Trump has publicly expressed confidence in a foreign adversary.

Following a meeting in Finland last July with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Trump said he believed Mr Putin's claim - disputed by US intelligence agencies - that Moscow didn't interfere in the 2016 presidential election.