The Washington Post reports that before the late Otto Warmbier was allowed to be flown out of Pyongyang in June 2017, North Korea insisted US officials sign a pledge agreeing to pay a $2 million hospital bill. Two people familiar with the negotiations and speaking on condition of anonymity told the Post that the agreement to pay the hospital bill was signed on the order of President Trump.
The bill for Warmbier’s medical care was delivered to the Treasury Department but was not paid through 2017, according to the two individuals. Whether the Trump administration ever paid the bill is not clear.
Otto’s father, Fred, says he did not know about the bill and that it sounds like a “ransom” for his son.
Otto Warmbier, then 21, pulled down a propaganda sign in a hotel in Pyongyang on January 1, 2016. His action was considered a “hostile act against the state” and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison with hard labor in March 2016. The North Korean government did not inform the US that Warmbier had fallen into a mysterious coma the night he was sentenced, instead holding him for 15 months before informing US officials of his condition.
Joseph Yun, a top diplomat for the US, flew to North Korea with Michael Flueckiger, an emergency medicine doctor, to attempt to gain Warmbier’s release. During the negotiations, Yun was given a $2 million bill for Otto’s medical stay and told he needed to sign an agreement pledging to pay before the unconscious Warmbier would be released. According to the Post’s sources, Yun called then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who came back with orders from President Trump for Yun to sign the agreement.
An unconscious Warmbier was flown to Cincinnati to be reunited with his parents and died six days later. The cause of his brain damage was never discovered. North Korea says Otto fell ill after eating pork and spinach and also had a severe allergic reaction to the medication he was given. Fred Warmbier has accused the North Koreans of beating his son, although physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said there was no evidence of torture.
The Warmbier’s blame Kim Jong Un for their son’s death and sued the North Korean government. They were awarded a $501 million settlement by US District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell. While Kim Jong Un’s regime will not pay the settlement, the judge said it was “appropriate to punish and deter North Korea” for the “torture, hostage taking and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier.”
When the president met with Un in February in Hanoi for their second summit, he said that he and Kim Jong Un spoke about Otto Warmbier’s death. Trump says that they discussed Warmbier’s death, saying Un “feels badly about it” and “he tells me he didn’t know about it and I take him at his word. I don’t believe he would have allowed that to happen.”
Executive director of the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, Greg Scarlatoiu, calls the hospital bill from North Korea “outrageous”. “They killed a perfectly healthy and happy college student and then had the audacity to expect the U.S. government to pay for his care,” he told the Post.
The State Department, Treasury Department, Rex Tillerson, Joseph Yun, and the North Korean envoy to the UN have all declined to comment on the Washington Post’s report.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, replied to a request for a comment regarding the bill from North Korea, saying, “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration.”