President Donald Trump says he believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the regime’s “top leadership” had no idea of the “horrible” conditions American college student Otto Warmbier was subjected to as a prisoner in the country.
“I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen,” Trump said of Kim during a press conference in Vietnam on Thursday. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened.”
“I don’t believe he knew about it,” Trump added.
Trump claims he confronted the North Korean leader about Warmbier, who was imprisoned in the country for allegedly attempting to steal a propaganda poster in 2016.
The 22-year-old, University of Virginia student was on a five-day tour of the country when he was summarily sentenced to 15 years in hard labor. He was repatriated to the US after 18 months but was found to have been in an extended coma. He died soon after.
At the time, North Korea claimed Warmbier contracted botulism and went into a coma after taking a pill to help him sleep, despite reports that he was tortured.
Trump says Kim “knew the case very well,” but that he “knew it later.”
“In those prisons, and those camps, you have a lot of people,” Trump said. “And some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really, really bad things.”
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump added.
Trump characterized Warmbier’s family as “incredible” but reminded reporters that he was instrumental in the release of three Korean-American hostages in May 2018.
The hostages had been detained for various alleged offenses ranging from espionage and other “hostile acts,” and served up to three years in prison.
“By the way, I got the prisoners back,” Trump said on Thursday. “I got the hostages back. And Otto was one of the hostages, but Otto came back in shape that was not even to be talked about.”
“I thought it was horrible,” he added. “Now, the others came back extremely healthy.”
Trump made his comments at a press conference in Hanoi, following his highly-anticipated second summit with Kim. The talks ended early without a deal, with Trump citing the fact that the two leaders could not commit to an agreement on the denuclearization of North Korea.
Otto’s parents, Cindy and Fred, have taken action following their son’s death. In what was mostly a symbolic gesture in December 2018, a federal judge sided with Warmbier’s parents and ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million for his wrongful death.
US District Judge Beryl Howell of Washington said in her opinion: “Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with ‘big dreams’ and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king.”
Cindy Warmbier told a United Nations meeting last May: “I can’t let Otto die in vain. We’re not special, but we’re Americans and we know what freedom’s like, and we have to stand up for this. We have to.”