President Donald Trump refused to blame North Korean leader Kim Jong-un for the death of late University student Otto Warmbier, following the abrupt end of their summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam Thursday. Trump said Kim told him “he didn’t know” about Warmbier’s treatment in North Korea and “will take him at his word.”
“I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen, it just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen,” Trump said during his summit-ending news conference in Vietnam. “Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places, and bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he, I don’t believe that he knew about it.”
In April 2018, Warmbier’s parents Frederick and Cynthia Warmbier filed a federal lawsuit against the North Korean government North Korea for the “hostage taking, illegal detention, torture and killing” of their son. In their suit, they claimed the North Korean government should be held liable for Otto’s wrongful death, intentional infliction of emotional distress and assault and battery, and should additionally be punished under federal anti-terrorism codes.
Warmbier’s family demanded both economic and non-economic compensation for personal injuries stemming from the North Korean government’s actions against Otto.
As a result of the lawsuit, a U.S district court judge awarded and subsequently ordered North Korea to pay more than $501 million in damages for his mistreatment and death in December 2018.
“[Kim] felt very badly,” Trump said. “He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. And, you know, you got a lot of people — big country, lot of people. And 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. But he tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
The day after Trump’s press conference statement, the Warmbier family spoke out against Kim in a statement of their own.
"We have been respectful during this summit process,” the statement said. “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 excuses or lavish praise can change that.”
Warmbier died shortly after he returned to the U.S. in a comatose state last June following 17 months of imprisonment in North Korea. He was arrested while visiting North Korea with a tour company in January 2016 and accused of attempting to steal a political banner from a staff-only area in a Pyongyang hotel. He was then sentenced to 15 years of hard labor following an hour-long trial in front of the country’s Supreme Court in March 2016.
“Otto’s death was a brutal and senseless tragedy,” University spokesperson Anthony de Bruyn said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. “Our thoughts remain with his family and friends.”
This article has been updated.