President Donald Trump said Friday that the United States did not pay any money to North Korea, which had issued a $2 million bill for the hospice care of American Otto Warmbier, the comatose University of Virginia student sent home from Pyongyang in 2017.
“No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else,” Trump said in a tweet in which he suggested he has taken a different approach to hostage negotiations than his predecessor.
Trump reiterated the point two hours later as he spoke to reporters outside the White House.
“We did not pay money for our great Otto,” Trump said. “I haven’t paid money for any hostage. . . . We don’t pay money for hostages.”
The Washington Post reported Thursday that North Korea presented an invoice for Warmbier’s care in an extraordinarily brazen act even for a regime known for its aggressive tactics.
The main U.S. envoy sent to retrieve Warmbier signed an agreement to pay the medical bill on instructions passed down from Trump, according to two people familiar with the situation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The bill went to the Treasury Department, where it remained – unpaid – throughout 2017, the people said.
Before Trump’s tweet, the White House had declined to comment on whether the bill was paid or whether the issue came up during preparations for Trump’s two summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In his Friday tweet, Trump cited two episodes during the Obama administration that he suggested stood in contrast to his stance on hostage negotiations.
Trump claimed that the previous administration “paid 1.8 Billion Dollars for four hostages.”
That referred to a 2016 settlement of a long-standing claim by Iran regarding undelivered aircraft on the same day four American detainees were released.
State Department officials have insisted that the negotiations over the claims and detainees were not connected but came together at the same time, with the cash payment used as “leverage” to ensure the release of detainees.
Trump also cited the case of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who in 2009 walked off a U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan and spent the next five years in enemy captivity. He was released in 2014 as part of a prisoner exchange for five Taliban members who were being held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay.
Bergdahl pleaded guilty in October 2017 to charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Trump has accused Bergdahl of being a traitor and called for his execution. Bergdahl was later sentenced to a dishonorable discharge from the Army but avoided prison time.
In a second tweet Friday, Trump quoted an unnamed U.S. negotiator saying: “President Donald J. Trump is the greatest hostage negotiator that I know of in the history of the United States. 20 hostages, many in impossible circumstances, have been released in last two years. No money was paid.”
A White House spokesman said Trump was referring to previous remarks by Robert O’Brien, the administration’s special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
O’Brien made similar remarks to those quoted by Trump at a March event in the Oval Office marking the return to the United States of Danny Burch, an American hostage who was freed in Yemen in February after nearly 18 months in captivity.
Speaking to reporters Friday, Trump claimed he was making “a lot of progress” in his efforts to denuclearize North Korea.
“I have a great relationship with Kim Jung Un,” said Trump, who also praised Russia and China for working with the United States toward its goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.
Warmbier, who was 21, fell into a coma for unknown reasons the night he was sentenced to 15 years in prison in North Korea with hard labor in March 2016.
He was convicted on charges stemming from pulling down a propaganda sign in a Pyongyang hotel in the early hours of Jan. 1, 2016. Such an infraction would be minor in almost any other country, but in North Korea, it was considered a “hostile act against the state.”
Fred Warmbier, Otto Warmbier’s father, said he was never told about the hospital bill. He said it sounded like a “ransom” for his son.
After his sentencing, the North Koreans held on to the comatose student for 15 more months, not even telling American officials until June 2017 that he had been unconscious all that time.
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · John Wagner, Anna Fifield