March 1 (UPI) — The parents of Otto Warmbier, a U.S. college student who died after 17 months in a North Korea jail, on Friday rejected President Donald Trump’s belief that Kim Jong Un had nothing to do with their son’s death.
During his summit with Kim in Vietnam this week, Trump said Kim felt “very badly” about Warmbier’s death and that he agreed Kim played no role in it.
Warmbier traveled to North Korea in 2015 and was arrested after he tried to take a propaganda poster from his hotel, Pyongyang officials said. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was returned to the United States in June 2017, in a coma. He died about a week later at the age of 22. North Korean officials said he’d received a head injury.
Trump told reporters at the summit Thursday Kim denied involvement.
“[Kim] tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” he said.
Friday, Warmbier’s parents and some Republican lawmakers were unequivocal in their belief Kim was involved.
“We have been respectful during this summit process,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said Friday. “Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuse or lavish praise can change that.”
At one point, North Korea said Warmbier contracted botulism, a claim that’s been challenged by U.S. physicians.
Republican Sen. Rob Portman, from the Warmbiers’ home state of Ohio, broke with Trump on the issue.
“We can’t be naive about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime that would do this to an American citizen,” Portman said in a statement. “And it’s not just about Otto and other visitors, it’s about how the people in North Korea are treated.”
“No one should have to go through what the Warmbier family has gone through. They have been incredibly strong through this whole ordeal. I’ve watched them channel their grief into something constructive, exposing some of the human rights abuses in North Korea,” he added.
“Otto Warmbier’s imprisonment and death were heinous crimes at the hands of the brutal Kim Jong Un regime,” Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup tweeted. “We must never forget this regime’s despicable human rights record, even as we work to denuclearize the country.”
Democratic Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown told ABC News Trump’s support for Kim were a departure from other presidents’ dealings with countries that have questionable human rights records.
“You never should go meet with the North Korean dictator without bringing up the name of Otto Warmbier and bring up the whole issue of human rights over and over,” he said. “That’s who we are as a country. President Bush would do it. President Clinton did it. President Obama did it. President Reagan did it and it’s — it just makes me sad.”
Trump’s stance conflicts with a U.S. district court ruling last month that awarded the Warmbiers a $500 million judgment against North Korea for the torture and extrajudicial killing of their son.
Trump invited the Warmbiers to his first State of the Union address last year. During the speech, he bashed North Korea for Warmbier’s death.
“The dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor before returning him to America last June, horribly injured and on the verge of death,” he said at the time.
Fred Warmbier later accompanied Vice President Mike Pence to the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where North Korean officials were present.