US President Donald Trump claims he was “misinterpreted” and insists he too blames North Korea for Otto Warmbier’s death, after first saying the country’s leader “didn’t know about it”.
On Saturday, Mr Trump took to Twitter to assure people he held North Korea responsible for the young American who was tortured in a North Korea prison for 17 months before later dying in his Ohio home in 2017.
….for Otto’s mistreatment and death. Most important, Otto Warmbier will not have died in vain. Otto and his family have become a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength, which will last for many years into the future. I love Otto and think of him often!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 1, 2019
White House adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News on Saturday (AEDT) she had spoken to Mr Trump about the issue.
“The President agrees with the Warmbier family and holds North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death,” Ms Conway said on the TV program.
In Hanoi, Pres. Trump defended Kim Jong Un in death of U.S. student Otto Warmbier, saying, "I don't believe that he would have allowed that to happen."
— ABC News (@ABC) March 1, 2019
A fierce backlash ensued for Mr Trump, including from fellow Republicans and Democrats after he initially refused to blame Kim Jong-un for Mr Warmbier’s death.
“He [Kim Jong-un] tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Mr Trump said at a press conference in Hanoi on Thursday after the summit between the pair.
“I don’t think the top leadership knew about it.”
In an interview with Fox News on Thursday (local time), Mr Trump called Mr Kim “real smart”, “sharp as you can be” and “a real leader”.
Democractic Senator for New York Chuck Schumer called for Mr Trump to apologise to the Warmbier family.
President @realDonaldTrump is once again simply deciding to take a cruel and brutal dictator at his word.
He owes Otto Warmbier’s parents an apology.
— Chuck Schumer (@SenSchumer) March 1, 2019
Ms Conway tried to clarify the President’s comments saying Mr Trump still held North Korea responsible, but stopped short of blaming the leader of the communist nation.
“What he said was that Chairman Kim says, what he believes Chairman Kim to have said, was that he was not aware of what had happened to Otto Warmbier when it happened,” she said.
The family of the young American who was detained by North Korea for 17 months and died in his home of Ohio in June 2017, were furious about Mr Trump’s comments.
“We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier wrote in a statement on Friday local time, a day after Mr Trump returned from the summit with the North Korean leader in Vietnam.
“Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”
North Korea found Mr Warmbier, a college student, guilty of “crimes against the state” for allegedly taking a propaganda poster on a visit with a tour group and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labour.
He was released in June 2017 after 17 months in prison, but was a ghost of his former self when he returned to his family in Ohio.
Six days after his return, he died in Cincinnati.
A judge later ruled North Korea was liable and detailed Mr Warmbier’s physical state on his return to the United States. Documents suggested he was possibly tortured by electric shock and suffered brain damage.