WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The parents of Otto Warmbier, an American student who died after 17 months in a North Korean prison, blamed Kim Jong Un’s “evil regime” on Friday after U.S. President Donald Trump said he believed the leader’s claim not to have known how their son was treated.
Warmbier’s parents said they had held off commenting during the second summit between Trump and Kim in Hanoi, which was cut short on Thursday after the two sides failed to reach a deal for the reclusive communist nation to give up its nuclear weapons.
“Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto,” Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement. “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that.”
After the family’s sharp statement, the White House tried to explain what Trump meant.
“What he said was that Chairman Kim says, what he believes Chairman Kim to have said, was that he was not aware of what had happened to Otto Warmbier when it happened,” Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told Fox News.
Trump had kind words for the family later on Twitter: “I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family. ... Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death.”
The U.S. president drew criticism after he praised Kim’s leadership and said he accepted Kim’s assertion that he had not been aware of how Warmbier was treated while in detention.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump told a news conference.
Prominent Republicans on Thursday did not share Trump’s acceptance of Kim’s word, including close Trump ally U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham, who said he didn’t “buy it for a minute.”
It wasn’t the first time Trump has faced criticism for appearing to side with autocratic leaders. He gave Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman the benefit of the doubt after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year. In July, Trump refused to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin for interfering in U.S. elections.
Warmbier, 22, died on June 19, 2017, shortly after he was flown home to Ohio in a coma after being held by North Korea for 17 months.
“Otto should have never been arrested in the first place and Kim is responsible for that decision and everything that subsequently happened,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Scott Malone and James Dalgleish