President Trump is taking a lot of heat from across the political spectrum after telling the media Thursday in Vietnam that he believed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un when the dictator claimed he was not aware of mistreatment of Otto Warmbier. Otto Warmbier was an American college student who was imprisoned in North Korea after Pyongyang authorities convicted him of stealing a propaganda poster from the hotel where he was staying. He was later sentenced, absurdly, to 15 years in jail and hard labor for his “crime.” He died shortly after being released to the United States.
“He felt badly about it. He felt very badly,” President Trump said of Kim Jong Un at a news conference in Hanoi Thursday. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” he added.
President Trump on Otto Warmbier: "I really believe something very bad happened to him, and I don't think that the top leadership knew about it…(Kim Jong-Un) felt very badly about it…He tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word." pic.twitter.com/EWnw7BzVNe
— Axios (@axios) February 28, 2019
“I did speak about it, but I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen,” the president said of Warmbier’s death. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”
Immediately following the president’s comments, media networks, television personalities, members of Congress, and others castigated the president for taking Kim Jong Un at his word.
“This is reprehensible what he just did. He gave cover… to a leader who knew very well what was going on with Otto Warmbier,” @RickSantorum says about Pres. Trump saying he believes Kim Jong Un’s claim he wasn't aware of the American student’s condition https://t.co/2JAkMvsnCI pic.twitter.com/kdGjff7N7r
— CNN (@CNN) February 28, 2019
Walking away from the summit was better than making a bad deal. It’s also the result of a poorly planned strategy.
But accepting Kim’s denial of involvement in Warmbier’s death? Detestable, and harkens back to Trump’s duplicitous acceptances of denials from other dictators. https://t.co/JvidU3AJYO
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) February 28, 2019
In Kim Jong Un's case, Otto Warmbier was brutally tortured & held captive for months before sent back in a coma to US where he died. In Saudi, the U.S. government concluded that the crown prince was responsible for Khashoggi's death. His associates carried it out with a bone saw. https://t.co/fuy4L5PsyK
— Josh Dawsey (@jdawsey1) February 28, 2019
Truly remarkable: Trump runs cover for Kim on Otto Warmbier: “I don’t believe he would have allowed that…he felt very badly about it…he tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word”.
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) February 28, 2019
The Otto Warmbier case is more complicated than many have been led to believe. In fact, evidence is still thin that North Korea “brutally tortured” the American college student, a claim that is being parroted in the media nonstop.
The University of Virginia student made a youthful mistake, and that one silly mistake had tragic and disastrous repercussions. Almost immediately after he was sentenced, media reports began to emerge that Warmbier’s medical condition was rapidly deteriorating. News networks began to report that North Korea was torturing Warmbier. “A senior American official has said the United States obtained intelligence reports that he had been repeatedly beaten,” The New York Times reported. After almost a year and a half in a North Korean prison, he was later released to the United States, where he died shortly thereafter.
Warmbier was undoubtedly wrongfully imprisoned by the Pyongyang regime. Certainly, it is a strong argument that North Korea, through its gross negligence and wrongful imprisonment, is responsible for his death. However, there remains no firm evidence that Warmbier was tortured or that North Korean officials such as Kim Jong Un were responsible for his declining health while imprisoned.
In the GQ report The Untold Story of Otto Warmbier, American Hostage, by journalist Doug Bock Clark, it becomes clear that the jury is still very much out on what caused Warmbier’s rapid decline in health and tragic death.
“Otto would never recover to tell his side of the story. And despite exhaustive examinations by doctors, no definitive medical evidence explaining how his injury came to be would ever emerge,” Clark writes.
The comprehensive piece on the tragic saga shows that medical examiners and coroners did not find firm evidence of torture and could not come to a conclusion about Warmbier’s injuries.
“Non-invasive scans found no hairline bone fractures or other evidence of prior trauma,” the piece notes, adding that “three other individuals who had close contact with Otto on his return also did not notice any physical signs consistent with torture.”
Moreover, North Korea experts and senior government officials interviewed for the piece expressed doubt about the claims sourced to U.S. intelligence agencies that the regime tortured him.
“In general, the intel reports were wrong, as the medical examinations have shown. They were apparently not even correct about where Otto was or when he was beaten,” a senior U.S. official told GQ. “Likely, the reports were just hearsay. Someone heard third- or fourth-hand that Otto was sick, and that person decided he was beaten. The North Koreans have never tortured a white guy physically. Never.”
President Trump’s comments about the Otto Warmbier tragedy need to be understood in the context of what evidence we have. We still do not know what led to his devastating and untimely death, but we don’t have evidence that Kim Jong Un had a personal hand in his death. Of course, that does not excuse Kim Jong Un’s horrific treatment of his own people or North Korea’s wrongful imprisonment of Otto Warmbier.