On the heels of the failed U.S.-North Korea summit in Hanoi, where no progress was made towards either denuclearization or sanctions relief, Kim Jong Un’s regime is receiving fresh criticism for its role in the 2017 death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier.
Warmbier, a 22-year old American college student, was detained in Jan. 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel while he was visiting Pyongyang with a tour group.
He subsequently was sentenced to a 15-year prison term, during which he suffered a neurological injury. He was repatriated in a vegetative state in June 2017 and died shortly afterward.
North Korea said that Warmbier’s condition was due to botulism and sleeping pills, but medical personnel in the U.S. found no evidence of botulism.
In the moments after the Hanoi summit concluded Thursday, U.S. President Donald Trump during a press conference was asked if he had approached Kim about taking responsibility for how Warmbier was handled.
Trump replied that “something very bad happened” but that he did not think the North Korean leader was aware of that, or would have permitted any foul play.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” said Trump, in comments he later walked back after returning to the United States.
Many observers, beginning with Warmbier’s parents, were critical of the president for his remarks.
Warmbier’s parents released a statement Friday, saying that they had chosen to remain silent during the summit, but now felt the need to speak.
"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," they said. "No excuses or lavish praise can change that."
Human rights groups chastised Trump, who has a record of expressing admiration for strongmen including Russia's President Vladimir Putin, Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte and Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
"It's absolutely appalling Donald Trump is letting North Korea off the hook for the death of this young man. In a totalitarian state like North Korea, Kim Jong-un would know every aspect of the trial and imprisonment of a high value hostage like Otto Warmbier,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch.
“Instead of making excuses for Chairman Kim, Trump should have demanded to know what happened to Otto, who was responsible for the rights abuses that caused his brain damage, and what was done to hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Robertson.
“Otto should have never been arrested in the first place and Kim is responsible for that decision and everything that subsequently happened. Donald Trump shows his disdain for human rights and democracy every time he takes the word of a dictator over the people hurt by the dictator's actions, and North Korea fully fits with that pattern," he said.
Trump has, since the post-summit press conference, somewhat walked back his stance on the case.
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Friday in an interview with Fox News that after speaking on the issue with Trump, "The president agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier's death."
The assasination of Kim Jong Nam
Meanwhile in Hanoi, where Kim Jong Un met Vietnam’s top leaders, the father of one of the women accused of murdering Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam at the behest of North Korean agents, said he hoped the meetings would help his daughter’s case.
“My daughter was allowed to phone home 2 or 3 times last year. During the phone calls she asked how the family was and told us that she was in good health and had a good appetite,” Doan Van Thanh told RFA’s Vietnamese Service
His daughter, Doan Thi Huong, and Indonesian Siti Aisyah are on trial for murder in Kuala Lumpur for Kim Jong Nam’s assassination in Feb. 2017 in a Malaysia airport.
She claims that she thought the two were participating in an elaborate prank when they sprayed a liquid on Kim’s face that turned out to be VX nerve gas. He died shortly afterward.
“I want the Vietnamese leaders to talk with the North Koreans to tell them that my daughter is innocent. She should be sent home as soon as possible,” her father said.
Pham Le Vuong Cac, a Vietnamese legal expert, said Doan Thi Huong was a victim in this case.
“She was enticed and cheated by North Korean secret agents into committing the murder,” he said.
“The ultimate responsibility rests with North Korea’s head of state, Kim Jong Un,” he added.
Asked whether he knew if Hanoi had raised the case with Kim, the legal expert said he didn’t know.
“But the government has the obligation to protect her because she is a [Vietnamese] citizen. She’s a victim,” he said.
Additional Reporting by RFA’s Vietnamese Service.