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Trump’s defense of Kim Jong Un leads to discord with parents of Otto Warmbier

The family of Otto Warmbier, who died after detention in North Korea, responded to President Trump's statement that leader Kim Jong Un was not responsible. (Video: Reuters)

President Trump countered comments by the parents of Otto Warmbier on Friday after they rebuked him for holding North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un blameless in their son’s death following 17 months in captivity, as growing tensions between them burst into the open.

Hours after Fred and Cindy Warmbier issued an emotional statement that directly accused Kim and his “evil regime” of killing their son in 2017, Trump asserted in a pair of tweets that his views had been “misinterpreted” when he defended Kim at a news conference a day earlier in Hanoi.

Trump had said, in response to a question from a Washington Post reporter, that Kim felt “very badly” about Warmbier’s death and that he took the authoritarian leader “at his word” that he was unaware of the college student’s abusive treatment.

“Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death,” Trump wrote on Twitter, without mentioning Kim. The president blamed the Obama administration for not doing more to secure Warmbier’s release and emphasized that Warmbier “will not have died in vain” as Trump continues to negotiate with Pyongyang.

President Trump said on Feb. 28 he spoke with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un about the American student who died shortly after he was released by North Korea. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Otto and his family have become a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength, which will last for many years into the future,” Trump wrote. “I love Otto and think of him often.”

Trump’s effort at political damage control came hours after the Warmbiers said they felt compelled to speak out after maintaining a relatively low profile out of respect for the president’s sensitive negotiations with Kim, including summits in Singapore last June and in Hanoi this week.

‘He tells me he didn’t know’: Trump defends Kim Jong Un over death of Otto Warmbier

The president had sought to forge a bond with the family as part of an international pressure campaign on the Kim regime in 2017 and early 2018 that helped lead to the summits, the first between a sitting U.S. president and a North Korean leader. Trump called the family several times during that period, and Vice President Pence also maintained contact with the Warm­biers. The parents were among the guests of first lady Melania Trump at the 2018 State of the Union address, during which Trump cited Otto’s death to highlight the cruelty of the Kim regime.

But the Warmbiers have been growing increasingly exasperated with Trump’s embrace of Kim since their first meeting in Singapore, according to a person with close ties to the family. Trump boasted at a campaign rally last fall that he and Kim “fell in love” after exchanging personal letters. And this week, Trump referred to Kim as “my friend” in a tweet and praised him as a “real leader” in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

In December, the Warmbier family won a $500 million federal court judgment against North Korea for the torture and extrajudicial killing of their son.

“Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto,” the Warmbiers said in their statement Friday. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuse or lavish praise can change that.”

The sharp public break between the family and Trump leaves the White House struggling to deal with a growing political backlash over the president’s lack of attention on North Korea’s human rights abuses at a time when nuclear disarmament negotiations have broken down. The collapse of the talks during the Hanoi summit, which ended early as the two sides failed to reach a deal, has cast doubt on Trump’s gamble that his personal rapport with Kim would be enough to bridge large gaps between the two sides.

Democrats and some Republicans have criticized Trump over his remarks about Kim and called on the president to take a tougher stand against the North Korean dictator. Trump also has sided with other authoritarian leaders who have denied responsibility for crimes, casting doubt on intelligence findings that Saudi Arabia’s ruling regime was responsible for the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi and saying he was satisfied with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s denials that he was involved in election interference efforts during the U.S. presidential campaign in 2016.

From Putin to Kim Jong Un, Trump has a habit of taking foreign autocrats at their word

“President @realDonaldTrump is once again simply deciding to take a cruel and brutal dictator at his word,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote Friday on Twitter. “He owes Otto Warm­bier’s parents an apology. Now.”

White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway attempted to tamp down criticism during a Friday interview on Fox News, insisting that “Trump agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible.” But she continued to draw a distinction between the North Korean regime and Kim.

“The president is talking about Chairman Kim did not know what happened to Otto at the time of when it happened,” she said. Conway added that Trump continues to take Kim “at his word” in the matter. “That is right,” she said.

Foreign policy experts said it was unfathomable that Kim would be kept unaware of the treatment of a high-profile American hostage such as Warmbier, whose case has drawn international attention.

Warmbier, then a 21-year-old student at the University of Virginia, was detained in Pyongyang in January 2016 after taking part in an organized tour of North Korea. He was accused of taking a propaganda poster from a wall.

In their legal filing, the Warmbiers stated that North Korean officials forced Otto to make a false statement in which he confessed to invented accusations that he was operating as a spy connected to the CIA. He was released more than 17 months later in a deep coma, blind, deaf, with a wound on his foot and damage to his teeth, the lawsuit states.

When his parents met him at the Cincinnati airport, Warmbier “had a shaved head, a feeding tube coming out of his nose, was jerking violently and howling, and was completely unresponsive to any of their efforts to comfort him.” North Korean officials disavowed responsibility, asserting Warmbier had contracted botulism.

In 2017, Trump railed repeatedly against the Kim regime for its treatment of Warmbier, using the case to help make an emotional appeal to the public as part of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on North Korea that focused on ramping up economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.

“We were all witness to the regime’s deadly abuse when an innocent American college student, Otto Warmbier, was returned to America only to die a few days later,” Trump said in an address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2017. He raised the case again during remarks to the South Korean National Assembly that November and in the January 2018 address, with the Warmbiers present.

Pence invited Fred Warmbier to join the White House delegation at the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018, where Pence met with North Korean defectors. And Trump called the family shortly ahead of his first nuclear disarmament summit with Kim in Singapore last June to emphasize that Otto was in his thoughts.

But the president abruptly shifted his tone on Kim after that first summit, making virtually no mention of Warmbier’s case or broader North Korean human rights abuses since then.

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At the news conference in Hanoi, Trump said Kim denied knowledge of Warmbier’s treatment “and I will take him at his word.”

He added: “I really don’t think the top leadership knew about it. I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”

In his interview with Hannity from Hanoi, Trump called Kim “a character” and a “real personality,” praising him as “sharp as you can be.”

“He’s a real leader, and he’s pretty mercurial,” Trump said. “. . . He likes me. I like him. Some people say, ‘Oh, you shouldn’t like him.’ I said, ‘Why shouldn’t I like him?’ We get along great.”

The Kim regime has been accused of keeping more than 100,000 citizens in hard-labor camps, maintaining strict controls over political dissent and free speech, and overseeing an impoverished nation while enriching its own family and a powerful elite.

In a landmark 2014 report, a U.N. commission found that the North Korean regime committed “unspeakable atrocities” against its own people on a vast scale. A separate assessment in 2017 from the International Bar Association War Crimes Committee concluded that Kim should be prosecuted for 10 separate crimes against humanity. One official, who survived the concentration camps in Auschwitz, said North Korea’s gulags were worse than those of Nazi Germany.

During a Senate oversight hearing in January, CIA Director Gina Haspel told lawmakers there is no evidence that the Kim regime has improved its human rights record since Trump took office.

In a statement Friday, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, denounced Trump for “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.”

Susan Svrluga contributed to this report.