Trump Blames North Korea’s ‘Brutal Regime’ for Student’s Death

Updated on
  • Warmbier death may escalate U.S. tensions with North Korea
  • 22-year-old imprisoned for trying to steal propaganda poster

North Korea Isn't Backing Down

President Donald Trump on Monday denounced the death of Otto Warmbier, saying the University of Virginia student who spent more than a year imprisoned in North Korea suffered at the hands of a “brutal regime.”

“At least he got home to his parents,” the president said during an event with technology CEOs at the White House, speaking just hours after Warmbier died. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 for trying to steal a political banner, and was medically evacuated to Ohio last week.

The 22-year-old student’s death risks escalating tensions as the U.S. looks to halt North Korea’s push to secure a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching North America. While Trump has warned that “all options” are on the table, so far he’s focused on pressuring China -- North Korea’s main ally and benefactor -- while looking to get on the same page with a more dovish administration in South Korea.

Public outrage in the U.S. over the captivity and death of a college student may now change his calculus. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. holds North Korea accountable for Warmbier’s “unjust imprisonment” and demanded the release of three other American citizens still in detention.

‘Extremely Difficult’

“This makes it extremely difficult for the U.S. to move forward to make any overture toward North Korea absent the release of the three other prisoners,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. “The public opinion will be played upon by those in power, and will prevent any kind of flexible response.”

In addition to the American prisoners, North Korean authorities have detained six South Koreans and one Canadian citizen, according to the Unification Ministry in Seoul. President Moon Jae-in, who took power last month, condemned North Korea for its treatment of Warmbier and said he would push for the return of South Korean prisoners as well.

Prior to the incident, tensions had risen between Moon and the U.S. over the deployment of a missile shield that took place under his predecessor. Earlier this month, Moon temporarily halted the installation of remaining components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, known as Thaad, pending an environmental impact assessment. Moon is scheduled to visit the White House later this month.

Warmbier had reportedly been in a coma since March 2016. Doctors described his condition as a state of "unresponsive wakefulness" and said he suffered a “severe neurological injury” of unknown cause while in North Korean custody.

Trump Involved

In a statement issued shortly after his public remarks, Trump said that he extended his “deepest condolences” to the Warmbier family.

“Otto’s fate deepens my Administration’s determination to prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency,” Trump said. “The United States once again condemns the brutality of the North Korean regime as we mourn its latest victim.”

Warmbier, who was visiting North Korea as part of a student tour, was released some 17 months after he was first detained. His return was celebrated by the Trump administration as evidence of successful diplomacy. The White House has described the president as personally involved in securing his release.

In a statement, the Warmbier family thanked the medical team that treated his son and those who had offered their thoughts and prayers.

“Unfortunately, the awful torturous mistreatment our son received at the hands of the North Koreans ensured that no other outcome was possible beyond the sad one we experienced today, the family statement said.

Senator Rob Portman, the Republican who represents Warmbier’s home state of Ohio, said the student had “a bright future ahead of him.”

“His passing today is a loss for Ohio and for all of us,” the senator said in a statement.

— With assistance by Andy Sharp, and Hooyeon Kim

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