President Donald Trump said Thursday that he believes North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un had no knowledge of the "bad things" that happened to American Otto Warmbier, who sustained incapacitating brain damage as a prisoner in the country that led to his death.
What's the background?
North Korean authorities detained Warmbier in 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster while visiting the country as a college student. He was convicted of crimes against the regime but was returned to his parents in a comatose state the next year. Warmbier died within days of arriving home to Ohio.
For his first State of the Union address in January 2018, Trump invited Warmbier's parents to attend and recognized them as "powerful witnesses" to the horrors of North Korea. Before introducing the Warmbiers, the president said, "We need only to look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies."
In describing what happened to Warmbier, Trump said, "After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor, before returning him to America last June — horribly injured and on the verge of death."
The relationship between Trump and Kim — whom the president previously referred to as "Little Rocket Man" — has apparently warmed amid the United States' efforts to reach a denuclearization deal with the Hermit Kingdom.
What did Trump say?
Following a recent summit between the two leaders, Trump told reporters that he discussed Otto Warmbier's case with Kim and said that he doesn't believe the top leadership in North Korea was involved. The president stated that Kim would not have knowingly allowed the horrible treatment of the American because "it wasn't to his advantage" to do so. He said Kim actually "felt very badly" about what happened to Warmbier.
The president went on to say he believes Kim and "will take him at his word" that he had no knowledge of what happened to Warmbier until later, noting that there are "a lot of people" detained in the country's "rough" prison camps. Trump reiterated, "I don't believe he knew about it."
Trump also pointed out that the other hostages released by the Kim regime at his behest had been returned to the U.S. in perfect health. Yet, "some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really, really bad things."
When asked if he had confronted Kim about Warmbier's death, the president answered:
I have, I have, and he and I have talked about it, and I really don't think it was in his interest at all. I know the Warmbier family very well. I think they're an incredible family. 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; and when they had to send him home — by the way, I got the prisoners back, I got the hostages back, and Otto was one of the hostages — but Otto came back in a shape that was not even to be talked about. I find it — I thought it was horrible.
Now, the others came back extremely healthy. But Otto came back in a condition that was just terrible, and I did speak about it, and I don't believe that [Kim Jong-Un] would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn't to his advantage to allow that to happen.
Those prisons are rough. They're rough places, and bad things happen, but I really don't believe that he was...I don't believe he knew about it. He felt badly about it. I did speak to him, he felt very badly but he knew the case very well, but he knew it later, and, ya know — you got a lot of people, it's a big country, a lot of people — and in those prisons, in those camps, you have a lot of people, and some really bad things happened to Otto. Some really, really bad things.
But [Kim Jong-Un] tells me, he tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.
Following President Trump's comments, his former U.S. ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, tweeted, "Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. Our hearts are with the Warmbier family for their strength and courage. We will never forget Otto."
Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. Our hearts are with the War… https://t.co/71dw2nQR3c— Nikki Haley (@Nikki Haley) 1551369249.0
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro went on a Twitter tirade over President Trump's comments, first referring to the president's statements as "f***ing pathetic," then lambasting him for "pretending Otto Warmbier wasn't murdered, and that the U.S. has a 'special relationship' with the worst dictator on the planet."
F***ing pathetic https://t.co/HrpNXyOPNk— Ben Shapiro (@Ben Shapiro) 1551368173.0
If there had been ANY serious pre-negotiations, none of this happens. And it is absolutely unconscionable for Trump… https://t.co/nMf4bISsk3— Ben Shapiro (@Ben Shapiro) 1551369617.0
And don't give me "the alternative was nuclear war"! No, it absolutely was and is not. Face-to-face meetings with g… https://t.co/8B8YLdZlev— Ben Shapiro (@Ben Shapiro) 1551369849.0