President Donald Trump approved a $2 million payment to cover the medical care of Otto Warmbier, a then-comatose University of Virginia student jailed in North Korea, according to a new report.
Warmbier was participating in a trip to North Korea late December 2015 through early January 2016 when he was detained and later charged for allegedly committing a "hostile act"—attempting to leave the country with a sign bearing a slogan from the ruling Korean Workers' Party. After sentencing, the 21-year-old at some point fell into a coma. He was eventually returned to the U.S. in June 2017 but died about a week later after he failed to regain consciousness, and the decision was made to have his feeding tube removed.
On Thursday, new information about discussions surrounding Warmbier's return was revealed by The Washington Post's Anna Fifield. Citing two unnamed sources familiar with the matter, Fifield reported that North Korea billed the U.S. $2 million for Warmbier's hospital bill and that Trump himself approved the invoice.
While the bill was sent to the Treasury Department, it could not be confirmed whether or not it was actually paid. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, "We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration."
Though the U.S. has blamed North Korea for Warmbier's death, what exactly transpired remains a mystery. Pyongyang officials maintained that Warmbier slipped into a coma after a bout of botulism and taking a sleeping pill. The student had suffered extensive brain damage by the time he reached U.S. soil, but examinations failed to determine what led to this injury and reportedly showed no signs of torture.
Michael Flueckiger, the Arizona-based Phoenix Air Group medical director who was sent alongside then-U.S. representative for North Korea Joseph Yun to meet Warmbier in North Korea, said the U.S. prisoner had received "really good care" in Pyongyang's foreigners-only Friendship Hospital, Fifield reported. Flueckiger noted that he felt compelled to sign off on the treatment but had no need to fabricate the results.
The incident occurred as Trump and North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un engaged in a war of words and exchanged threats of potential nuclear warfare. By early last year, however, their tone had begun to change as Kim extended an olive branch to his southern, U.S.-backed neighbor, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and began a new round of diplomacy.
In December, months after the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore and in the lead-up to a follow-up meeting in Vietnam in February, the District Court for the District of Columbia ruled on a $1.1 billion lawsuit filed by Warmbier's parents, Cindy and Fred, by ordering North Korea to pay $501 million in damages. The judge held the country "liable for the torture, hostage-taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier and the injuries to his mother and father."
North Korea did not respond to the order, though Warmbier apparently came up during Trump and Kim's second summit. Trump told reporters after his talks with Kim that he "tells me he didn't know about it, and I take him at his word." He added: "I don't believe he would have allowed that to happen…. It just wasn't to his advantage to allow that to happen."
The comments were received controversially even by political allies such as Nikki Haley, Trump's former ambassador to the United Nations. Shortly after Trump's remarks, Haley tweeted: "Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime. Our hearts are with the Warmbier family for their strength and courage. We will never forget Otto."
Democratic lawmakers have considered a bill that would officially blame North Korea for Warmbier's death. Amid questioning on the matter by Representative Tom Malinowski of New Jersey last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned against turning the matter into "political football," saying, "It's inappropriate."