President Donald Trump on Thursday said he does not hold North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death after Kim denied knowledge of the American student’s maltreatment.
“He felt badly about it. He felt very badly,” Trump said at a news conference after his second summit with Kim, after saying they discussed the matter privately. “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”
North Korea released Warmbier, an American student, in June 2017 after more than a year of imprisonment, returning him to the US in a coma. Warmbier died days after returning to the US and US officials quickly blamed North Korea for the brain damage Warmbier suffered that led to his death.
Trump’s willingness to suspend disbelief with Kim echoes the way he accepted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s denial of involvement in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Vladimir Putin’s that claim Russia didn’t meddle with the 2016 US presidential election.
A former senior member of Trump’s national security team pushed back. Nikki Haley, who served as US ambassador to the United Nations until the end of last year, tweeted that “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.”
Trump appeared to clear Kim of any responsibility in the matter though he did acknowledge that North Korean prisons — a nefarious facet of Kim’s repressive rule —- are “rough.”
Human rights groups say the North Korean regime actively participates in concentration camps, starvation and medical experimentation on human subjects.
Trump said he believed Kim’s denial in part because it would not be in Kim’s interest for Warmbier to wind up in a coma as he did during his imprisonment in North Korea.
“I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it,” Trump added. “I don’t believe that he (Kim) would have allowed that to happen.”
Trump has largely avoided the topic of North Korea’s atrocious human rights record as he has tried to coax Kim into giving up his nuclear weapons, and Trump’s comments on Thursday fit a pattern of Trump glossing over those abuses in favor of strengthening his one-on-one relationship with Kim.
When a reporter tried to ask Kim on Thursday if he was discussing his country’s human rights record, Trump jumped in and simply said: “We’re discussing everything.”