Donald Trump said Thursday that Kim Jong Un “felt badly” about his country's torture of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, who was left in a vegetative state and later died from injuries suffered in a North Korean prison.
Speaking at a press conference in Hanoi after the second summit between the leaders, the president defended Kim, who claimed he had no knowledge of Warmbier’s suffering.
The college student was returned to the U.S. in a coma in 2017 after spending more than a year as a prisoner of the state.
“He felt badly about it,” Trump said of Kim. “He felt very badly. Some really bad things happened to Otto — some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
Ahead of the summit, politicians had urged Trump to raise the issue with Kim.
Trump said he did raise the issue, but suggested it would have been no benefit to Kim to order Warmbier’s torture.
“We've talked about it. I really don't think it was in his interests 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 the top leadership knew about it,” Trump said.
“Prisons are rough, they're rough places, and bad things happened,” Trump added.
Kim knew the case “very well”, Trump said, only “later” adding that in North Korean prisons “you know, you got a lot of people, big country, lot of people.”
Warmbier, a student at the University of Virginia, died in June 2017, just days after returning to the United States after spending 17 months imprisoned in North Korea for stealing a poster. U.S. officials quickly blamed North Korea for the brain damage that caused Warmbier’s death.
A federal judge in December ruled that North Korea was liable for the torture and death of Warmbier, awarding his parents a $500 million judgement against the rogue regime.
Activists have called on Trump to hold Pyongyang more accountable over human rights violations. However, Trump’s siding with Kim on the Warmbier issue was not unexpected.
“It was shocking, though sadly not surprising, to see Trump trying to defend a brutal dictator he calls his ‘friend’,” Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch, told VICE News.
“No one can say what exact details Kim personally knew about the minute-by-minute horrors Warmbier faced in North Korea's prisons, but Trump's suggestion that Kim only knew about this high-profile case ‘later,’ after the abuses happened, doesn't sound at all credible,” Stroehlein added.
When a reporter asked Kim Tuesday if he would be discussing human rights issues during the summit, Trump jumped in and said: “We’ll discuss everything.”
Thursday’s press conference was not the first time Trump has publicly defended an autocrat. The president infamously sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin when asked about the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election. He also failed to condemn the Saudi Crown Prince over his role in the torture and murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October.
Cover image: In this handout photo provided by Vietnam News Agency, U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their second summit meeting at the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam. (Vietnam News Agency/Handout/Getty Images)