"Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity," Otto Warmbier's parents said in a statement. "No excuses or lavish praise can change that"

By Adam Carlson and Helen Murphy
March 01, 2019 11:02 AM
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Parents Of Student Released From North Korean Prison Hold Press Conference
Credit: Bill Pugliano/Getty

The parents of a University of Virginia student who died after apparently being brutalized in North Korean custody for more than a year said Friday they were compelled to speak out about President Donald Trump‘s defense of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.

“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement sent to multiple news outlets, including NBC News and the Washington Post.

They continued: “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. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”

The Warmbiers’ stinging criticism comes soon after President Trump said he believed the North Korean leader had no foreknowledge of the treatment of Otto Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel.

Otto was in North Korea with a tour group and was arrested on Jan. 2, 2016, while trying to board a plane back to the U.S.

After being detained for more than 17 months, Otto was released to the U.S. on June 13, 2017, in a coma. He died days and had suffered severe brain damage. He was 22.

The exact details of time in North Korean custody have never been made public.

In a statement at the time, Otto’s family said he had been “brutalized and terrorized by” what they called a “pariah regime” — referring to North Korea’s longstanding ostracization from the international community.

Dad Fred told Fox News in 2017: “They’re brutal. There’s no sense to anything here. They’ve crossed a line with my son, Otto. It would be very difficult to look for a lesson here amongst this insanity.”

N. Korea sentences American student to 15 years' hard labor
Otto Warmbier (center) in 2016
| Credit: Kyodo

Trump made his defense of the Kim on Thursday while in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a summit about North Korea’s possible denuclearization. (Those talks soon collapsed.)

“I really don’t think it was in [Kim’s] interest at all,” Trump said in a news conference, adding that he “did speak” to the dictator about Otto. “What happened is horrible. I really believe something very bad happened to him and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it.”

“I don’t believe that [Kim] would have allowed that to happen,” Trump continued. “It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places. And bad things happened. But I really don’t believe that he was — I don’t believe he knew about it.”

“He felt badly about it,” the president added. “He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. You’ve got a lot of people. Big country, a lot of people. And in those prisons and those camps, you have a lot of people. And some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things.”

“But [Kim] tells me he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” Trump finished.

This is not the first time the president has taken the side of a totalitarian leader on the global stage.

At a meeting in Finland last year, Trump sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin — whom he has long praised — on the issue of Russia’s cyber-interference in the 2016 presidential election. According to the American intelligence community, Russia was working to help Trump beat Hillary Clinton.