CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - President Donald Trump said Thursday he doesn’t think North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had a role in Otto Warmbier’s death, but not everyone in Washington agrees with him.
Warmbier’s parents have maintained all along that their son was tortured.
The college student died after he was detained in North Korea.
FOX19 reached out to the family, but so far his parents have not made any statements about the president’s comments.
“I really believe something very bad happened to him and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it,” the president said in response to a question at a news conference in Hanoi.
He continued: “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 thought it was horrible.”
Trump said he pressed Kim Jong Un on the subject.
“I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen," Trump said. "It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened.”
Reaction was swift and harsh from elected officials in the President’s own political party.
“Otto Warmbier’s imprisonment and death were heinous crimes at the hands of the brutal Kim Jong Un regime," said U.S. Rep. Brad Wenstrup in a tweet. "We must never forget this regime’s despicable human rights record, even as we work to denuclearize the country.”
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman said in a lengthy statement: “I want to make clear that we can never forget about Otto. His treatment at the hands of his captors was unforgivable and tells us a lot about the regime.”
See his statement in its entirety below
“North Korea murdered Otto Warmbier and the President of the United States has a responsibility to make sure they face the consequences," said U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. "Anything short of that is unacceptable. The President of the United States is sending a message to dictators around the world that he believes autocrats when they lie or when they cover up, or when they justify policies that result in the deaths of human beings.”
Late last year, North Korea was ordered by a federal judge to pay $500 million to the Warmbier family after they filed a lawsuit against the country requesting more than $1 billion in punitive damages.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement at the time they were thankful that that the court found the government of Kim Jong Un “legally and morally” responsible for their son’s death.
Critics say it’s difficult to believe Kim Jong Un wouldn’t keep tabs on the imprisonment of an American citizen. Trump has avoided the topic of Kim’s human rights record as he tries to coax him to give up his nuclear weapons.
Trump may have been looking for a deal from Kim when he made the remarks about the dictator and Otto Warmbier at a press conference Thursday following the collapse of the U.S.-North Korea nuclear summit.
“But you can’t sell human rights down the river,” Kasich said on CNN.
Sen. Rob Portman statement:
“In the context of the ongoing negotiations with North Korea, there has been a lot of discussion today in the media about Otto Warmbier. Otto Warmbier was a young man from my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. This is an emotional issue for me because through the process of trying to bring Otto home I got to know his family very well.
“He was a young man with a lot of promise. He was 22 years old. A college student at the University of Virginia. He had gone as a tourist to North Korea, and he was pulled out of the line at the airport. Here he was, a kind-hearted, college kid who found himself a prisoner in North Korea. He was there for about 18 months. His detainment and his sentence were appalling and unacceptable by any standards. At some point soon after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, from what we know, Otto suffered a severe brain injury. What happened? We may never know the details. But we do know one thing and that was he was severely mistreated.
“Who did the North Korean government tell about the fact that he had this brain damage? No one. Unbelievably for the next 15 months of his life they kept this a secret. They denied him access to the best medical care he deserved, which, of course, we would have provided. I was in communication with the North Korean government during this time, through their offices at the United Nations in New York. They didn't even tell us about the terrible mistreatment that he had suffered and the condition he was in. They refused repeated requests for consular access that normally would have been provided to someone who’s been detained, regardless of their health situation. This included denying requests from me and others here in this body, but also from the Obama administration, the Trump administration, the Red Cross, also from the government of Sweden, which typically acts for us in North Korea as a consulate service.
“I say that because while I support engagement with North Korea -- in fact my experience with Otto Warmbier makes me even more convinced that we need to be in communication because we had no good lines of communication. I support the ongoing talks with North Korea, specifically about denuclearization. But I want to make clear that we can never forget about Otto. His treatment at the hands of his captors was unforgivable and it tells us a lot about the nature of this regime.
“We can’t be naive about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime that would do this to an American citizen, and it's not just about Otto and other visitors, it's about how the people in North Korea are treated. Many of them also have had their human rights violated. No one should have to go through what the Warmbier family has gone through. They have been incredibly strong through this whole ordeal. I’ve watched them channel their grief into something constructive, exposing some of the human rights abuses in North Korea.
“Throughout this ordeal, I have stood with Fred and Cindy and their entire family, and I will continue to do so. But I also want to say today as we discuss these broader issues with North Korea, let’s keep Otto Warmbier at the front of our minds. Let’s be sure that he is high on our agenda and in our consciousness as we deal with North Korea and again understanding, because of our experience with Otto, the brutal nature of this regime.”