Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeatedly refused to blame American student Otto Warmbier’s death on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during an appearance before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Instead, Pompeo broadly cast Warmbier’s death as that fault of the “North Korean regime” and declined to explain President Donald Trump’s fondness for Kim himself. Trump has referred to the dictator as his “friend” and a “real leader” he fell in “love” with.
Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) pressed Pompeo about the White House’s reversals on sanctions against North Korea last week during the secretary’s testimony before the committee. The exchange grew fiery at one point when the lawmaker simply asked why Trump liked Kim.
“Was he responsible for the decision not to allow Otto Warmbier to come home until he was on death’s door?” Malinowski asked of Kim.
“I’ll leave the president’s statement to stand,” Pompeo said. “We all know that the North Korean regime was responsible for the tragedy that occurred to Otto Warmbier. I’ve met that family, I know those people, I love them dearly. They suffered mightily, sir.”
“So what’s to like about Kim Jong Un?” Malinowski asked.
“Sir, don’t make this a political football,” Pompeo replied. “It’s inappropriate.”
Pompeo demurred in a similar way earlier this month in an interview with USA Today, declining to link Kim to Warmbier’s death several times.
North Korea imprisoned Warmbier for stealing a propaganda poster during a trip in 2016 and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor. Pyongyang released him to the United States a year later in critical condition, and he died in June 2017.
Trump has heralded himself for bringing Warmbier home, but members of his administration have continually failed to directly blame Kim for the student’s death. The president drew widespread ire last month when he said he took Kim “at his word” after the dictator said he was unaware of the student’s treatment. Experts are highly skeptical that a U.S. prisoner could have been held in the country without Kim knowing it.
The comments also drew a rebuke from Warmbier’s family, who said their son’s death was the responsibility of “Kim and his evil regime. ... No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”
North Korea policy experts said they weren’t surprised by Pompeo’s reluctance to link Kim directly to Warmbier’s death on Wednesday, saying that by doing so, the Trump administration can appear to be taking a hard line against the regime while maintaining some semblance of diplomacy with Kim himself.
“The administration is trying to square the circle between holding the regime responsible for its treatment of Otto Warmbier, but not criticize Kim directly — who they are trying to keep from testing a satellite launch vehicle, or worse, and to keep the diplomatic process from completely imploding,” Vipin Narang, an associate professor at MIT, told HuffPost.
Alexandra Bell, a senior policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said Pompeo has long avoided laying any specific blame at Kim’s feet, instead painting the regime with a broad brush to preserve any diplomatic relations.
“That is not surprising given the (hopefully) ongoing negotiations with North Korea,” Bell wrote in an email. “That said, Rep. Malinowski has been very clear about his concerns over human rights in North Korea and in his assessment of who is to blame for the death of Otto Warmbier. His line of questioning should not have come as a surprise.”