A former U.S. official who signed a document in 2017 stating the U.S. would pay North Korea $2 million for the release of American student Otto Warmbier said he believes President Donald Trump approved the pledge.
Joseph Yun was the U.S. State Department’s special representative to North Korea when he retrieved 22-year-old Warmbier from North Korea in June 2017.
Yun confirmed reports on Monday that North Korean officials had demanded the $2 million for Warmbier’s so-called medical bill.
“As soon as the North Korean side told me that his bill for $2 million would have to be paid, of course I contacted my boss, then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to ask him,” said Yun, a CNN contributor. Tillerson “got back to me very quickly thereafter to say yes, go ahead and sign.”
Asked if Trump had approved the agreement, Yun said he believed he did.
“That was my understanding,” Yun said, “I never asked him, but that was my understanding.”
Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of prison and hard labor in March 2016 for stealing a political propaganda poster from his hotel in Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. He was 21 years old at the time.
After 17 months in prison, Warmbier was medically evacuated to the U.S. He arrived in the U.S. in a vegetative state on June 13, 2017, and died roughly six days later.
The Washington Post first reported on the previously undisclosed agreement between the U.S. and North Korea on Thursday, citing two unnamed sources familiar with the situation. Yun had signed the pledge at the direction of Tillerson, who received approval from Trump, the Post reported.
National security adviser John Bolton confirmed there was an agreement on Sunday, but did not say whether Trump had approved it. He also claimed the U.S. never actually paid North Korea the $2 million.
Asked whether the U.S. essentially “signed a document fully intending not to honor it,” Bolton told “Fox News Sunday” that he wasn’t sure of the exact circumstances.
“I think when people leave government, sometimes their recollections of things that happened inside tend to be a little different from what actually happened,” he said. “It’s very clear to me from my looking into it in the past few days, no money was paid.”
The White House declined to comment to the Post last week, stating it “does not comment on hostage negotiations,” though Trump told reporters outside the White House on Friday that “there was no money paid.”
Yun said Monday that he wasn’t sure whether the U.S. had ever actually paid North Korea the $2 million, but said there hadn’t been any payment by the time he left his position in February 2018. Yun said he believes the U.S., having signed the agreement, should follow through on it.
“If you’ve promised another government from the U.S. government that you’d make the payment, my view certainly is that we should go ahead and meet our end of the commitment,” he said.
The White House declined to provide additional comment beyond what Trump and Bolton have already stated.
The State Department referred HuffPost to the White House’s initial statement to the Post: “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration.” It declined to comment further.