Otto Warmbier, a 22-year-old college student who was released from imprisonment in North Korea in a coma, died in June 2017

By Helen Murphy
February 28, 2019 01:18 PM
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Credit: Kyodo

President Donald Trump defended North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un on Thursday, saying that Kim was not at fault for the death of American student Otto Warmbier, who died in June 2017 after being returned to the U.S. in a coma from North Korean imprisonment.

“I really don’t think it was in [Kim’s] interest at all,” Trump said in a press conference on Thursday, adding that he “did speak” to the dictator about Warmbier. “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.

The president was in Hanoi, Vietnam, for a summit with the North Korean dictator. Trump left Vietnam abruptly on Thursday after failing to make a deal with Kim regarding the country’s nuclear weapons program, CNN reported.

Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump
| Credit: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

RELATED VIDEO: Otto Warmbier’s Parents Say He Was ‘Howling,’ ‘Jerking Violently’ After North Korea Release: ‘They Destroyed Him’

Warmbier died on June 19, 2017 at age 22.

The University of Virginia student — who was a native of the Cincinnati, Ohio, area — was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor for allegedly stealing a political propaganda poster from his Pyongyang hotel. He 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, Warmbier was released to the U.S. on June 13, 2017, in a coma. He died days later.

Otto Warmbier
| Credit: Kyodo

“It would be easy at a moment like this to focus on all that we lost — future time that won’t be spent with a warm, engaging, brilliant young man whose curiosity and enthusiasm for life knew no bounds,” a statement from Warmbier’s parents read at the time. “But we choose to focus on the time we were given to be with this remarkable person. You can tell from the outpouring of emotion from the communities that he touched… that the love for Otto went well beyond his immediate family.”

At the time, President Trump said in a statement: “Melania and I offer our deepest condolences to the family of Otto Warmbier on his untimely passing. There is nothing more tragic for a parent than to lose a child in the prime of life. Our thoughts and prayers are with Otto’s family and friends, and all who loved him.”

And in his 2018 State of the Union address, Trump condemned Kim’s regime while speaking to Warmbier’s parents. “You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all,” Trump said, according to CNN. “Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.”

“We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies,” he said in the same speech.