Trump Says That Without Otto Warmbier, North Korea Summit Wouldn't Have Happened

The president was responsible for bringing the student back to the U.S. after more than a year in North Korean captivity. Warmbier died days after returning home.

President Donald Trump credited Otto Warmbier, the University of Virginia undergraduate who died after being imprisoned in North Korea, with the creation of Tuesday’s historic nuclear summit.

“Otto Warmbier is a very special person, his parents are good friends of mine,” Trump told reporters from Singapore after he and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signed an agreement committing to “complete denuclearization.” “I think without Otto this would not have happened.”

He called Warmbier’s death “brutal,” but noted that “a lot of people started to focus on what was going on including North Korea.”

Trump first ignored a question about whether he and Kim discussed Warmbier as the two leaders signed the agreement, leading many on Twitter to point out that the reclusive regime’s human rights violations have taken a back seat during the negotiations. 

Trump directed the State Department to secure Warmbier’s release last year. Warmbier was flown back to the U.S. in a state described by doctors as one of “unresponsive wakefulness,” unable to speak, see or react to verbal commands. He died days later.

The Wyoming, Ohio, native was in North Korea with a tour group when he was detained for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster from a hotel. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 after a tear-filled confession on camera in a North Korean courtroom.

Intelligence reports suggested Warmbier had been beaten so badly while in custody that there were fears he had died, a U.S. intelligence official told The New York Times. 

Whether Trump and Kim discussed Warmbier and human rights violations more broadly behind closed doors remains unknown. Yet, it’s no secret that North Korea’s abysmal record on human rights was never the focus of the summit, Jieun Baek, author of North Korea’s Hidden Revolution: How the Information Underground is Transforming a Closed Society, told HuffPost.

Condemning Kim on human rights wouldn’t have been strategically desirable and could have made it more difficult to bring him to the negotiating table, she said. Instead, she hopes Trump takes advantage of the opportunity to raise the topic with Kim “in a very creative and careful way.” One such way might entail delegating the issue of human rights to his advisers or policy experts, she added.