WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump insisted Friday that the United States paid North Korea nothing for the release of Otto Warmbier, a young American who fell into a coma after allegedly being tortured in the totalitarian country.
On Thursday, The Washington Post quoted unidentified sources as saying that a US official was made to sign a pledge to pay $2 million in medical costs before being allowed to fly Warmbier, a Jewish student, back home from Pyongyang in 2017.
The envoy signed the pledge on instructions from Trump, the Post reported.
But in a tweet Friday, Trump said: “No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else.”
No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else. This is not the Obama Administration that paid 1.8 Billion Dollars for four hostages, or gave five terroist hostages plus, who soon went back to battle, for traitor Sgt. Bergdahl!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 26, 2019
He then wrote, without saying where the quote came from: “President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.” Cheif (sic) Hostage Negotiator, USA!”
Warmbier, a University of Virginia student, was imprisoned after being accused of taking down a propaganda poster in his hotel during a trip to North Korea. Warmbier was traveling to Hong Kong for a study abroad program, when he decided to visit North Korea on a guided tour.
Doctors said he suffered severe brain damage while in North Korean detention, fell into a coma and died days after arriving back in the United States.
North Korea denied claims by the Warmbier family that he had been tortured, saying he had contracted botulism.
A coroner who examined Warmbier’s body said: “We don’t know what happened to him. That’s the bottom line”.
His parents, Cindy and Fred Warmbier, accused North Korea in a lawsuit of having “repeatedly lied about the causes of Otto’s condition” and of refusing “to acknowledge its abhorrent actions… North Korea, which is a rogue regime, took Otto hostage for its own wrongful ends and brutally tortured and murdered him.”
In December, a US court ordered North Korea to pay $501 million to the family.
The family had hidden Warmbier’s Jewishness during negotiations for his return. Warmbier, whose mother is Jewish, became active at the University of Virginia campus Hillel following a 2014 Birthright trip to Israel.
During his visit to Israel, Warmbier was given a Hebrew name and wrote a blog post about his first time visiting the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
“The Western Wall was a truly incredible experience for me,” he said. “Just being at a spot that has been so central to Judaism for thousands of years was completely surreal. The power that emanated from the wall showed on the faces of all those who were near it.
“When I was forced to step away to avoid holding up the group for the third time, it honestly felt like saying goodbye to a loved one,” he went on. “It was difficult to wrap my mind around the concept of such a pinnacle — I had done what so many Jews wish to do. Each year at Channukah, my family finishes the prayer by saying ‘next year in Jerusalem.’ For me, it was this year in Jerusalem. And this day at the Western Wall.”
Trump has made rapprochement with North Korea one of his signature policies and he has held two summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
At their last meeting in Hanoi in February, Trump said he accepted Kim’s claim not to have known what had happened to Warmbier in prison, despite the case being extraordinarily sensitive.
“I will take him at his word,” Trump said.
ToI staff and Agencies contributed to this report.