Trump Accepts Kim's Claim He Was Unaware of Warmbier Torture

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump said he takes Kim Jong Un “at his word” that he wasn’t aware of North Korea’s imprisonment and torture of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who died after being detained for more than 17 months.

Trump told reporters that he had discussed the Warmbier case with Kim before the leaders’ hastily adjourned second summit in Hanoi and that the dictator assured him he only learned of Warmbier’s treatment after the fact.

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

Trump said Kim “felt bad” about the episode.

Warmbier was a 21-year-old University of Virginia junior on a group tour when he was seized by North Korean authorities in January 2016, and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster praising dictator Kim Jong-Il, Kim Jong Un’s father.

Trump Accepts Kim's Claim He Was Unaware of Warmbier Torture

He was initially sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was returned to the U.S. in June 2017 in a comatose state -- brain dead, blind and deaf. He died shortly afterward in Ohio, his home state.

At the time, Trump called his treatment “a disgrace” and said that the North Korean government was a “brutal regime.”

American authorities were told Warmbier had been in a coma for more than a year of his imprisonment, since April 2016 -- two months after being forced to recite a videotaped confession in which he said he took the poster at the behest of the CIA and an Ohio church.

North Korea said Warmbier become ill from botulism, but American doctors found no evidence of that. A federal judge in December awarded $500 million in damages to Warmbier’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the North Korean government.

“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,” Trump said in Hanoi on Thursday.

As for Kim, specifically, Trump added: “I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen.”

It’s not the first time Trump has publicly expressed confidence in a foreign leader accused of human rights abuses. His administration has been criticized for refusing to limit ties to Saudi Arabia or to overtly condemn Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged role in the murder of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last year.

Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and other senior U.S. officials met Crown Prince Mohammed and his father, King Salman, on Tuesday to discuss “increasing cooperation between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and the Trump Administration’s efforts to facilitate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians,” the White House said in a statement.

Trump also has been criticized for siding with Russian President Vladimir Putin following a meeting in Finland last July, when he said he believed Putin’s claim -- disputed by U.S. intelligence agencies -- that Moscow didn’t interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.