President Donald Trump said Tuesday that the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier after his lengthy detention in North Korea was a “total disgrace,” and said if the college student had been returned home to the U.S. earlier, “I think the result would have been a lot different.”
Trump said he had spoken with Warmbier’s parents, telling reporters in the Oval Office that it was “incredible what they’ve gone through.” Seated next to the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, Trump said Warmbier “should have been brought home a long time ago.”
“It’s a total disgrace what happened to Otto. That should never ever be allowed to happen,” Trump said. “And frankly if he were brought home sooner I think the result would have been a lot different.”
The Ohio college student died Monday at a Cincinnati hospital, nearly a week after his return to the United States after being held in North Korea for more than 17 months. Warmbier’s parents have not cited a specific cause of death, but pointed to “awful, torturous mistreatment” by North Korea.
Doctors have described Warmbier’s condition as a state of “unresponsive wakefulness” and said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause.
The University of Virginia student was accused of trying to steal a propaganda banner while visiting with a tour group and was convicted of subversion. He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years in prison with hard labour.
Han Tae Song, North Korea’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, speaking in his first interview since taking up the post in February, declined to comment specifically about Warmbier’s case or the fate of other American, South Korean and Canadian detainees still held by his country.
But he firmly rejected two statements issued last week by Tomas Ojea-Quintana, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, about detainees and stalled family reunions between Koreans on both sides of the divided peninsula.
“His remarks are unacceptable and distorting realities,” Han told Reuters at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) diplomatic mission along Lake Geneva.
3 Americans, Canadian detained in North Korea
Ojea-Quintana had called on Pyongyang on Friday to explain why Warmbier was in a coma when he was returned home after being denied access to legal and consular services. The UN. expert said his crime of stealing an item bearing a propaganda slogan seemed “disproportionate” to the 15-year prison term.
“That is what we expected from him. As I said already, he [Ojea-Quintana] is the model servant of the hostile forces,” Han said, making clear he was referring to the United States and its allies who conduct joint military exercises regularly along the volatile border. “We are doing according to our national laws, and according to the international standards,” Han said, adding that he was not an expert on detention issues.
Three American citizens are still in custody in North Korea:
- Kim Dong Chul, a businessman.
- Tony Kim, a university professor.
- Kim Hak-song, a university employee.
Hyeon Soo Lim, a pastor who has lived in the Toronto area for three decades after emigrating from South Korea, has been detained in North Korea since 2015. Before his detention, he had made dozens of trips to North Korea for humanitarian aid purposes, according to his church and family.