Trump says U.S. paid no money to North Korea over Warmbier

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday said the United States did not pay any money to North Korea as it sought the release of Otto Warmbier, a day after a report said Trump had approved a $2 million bill from Pyongyang for the American student’s care.

“No money was paid to North Korea for Otto Warmbier, not two Million Dollars, not anything else,” Trump wrote in a tweet.

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump had approved payment of a $2 million bill from Pyongyang to cover its care of the comatose college student, who was held in a North Korean prison for 17 months until June 2017.

Warmbier, a University of Virginia student from Ohio visiting North Korea as a tourist, was imprisoned in January 2016. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for allegedly trying to steal an item with a propaganda slogan from his hotel, North Korean state media said.

Warmbier died six days after his release from North Korea. An Ohio coroner said Warmbier died from a lack of oxygen and blood to his brain. North Korea, which has dismissed claims that it tortured the student, blamed food poisoning and a sleeping pill.

The Treasury Department received the bill from North Korea and it remained unpaid through 2017, the Post reported. It was not clear whether the administration paid the invoice later.

Trump’s tweet did not address whether any agreement had been made and representatives for the White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

Asked whether it was accurate to say that no money was paid to North Korea in the Warmbier case, a State Department spokeswoman said by email: “We decline to comment.”

The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The Post said an invoice was handed to then State Department envoy Joseph Yun hours before Warmbier was flown out of Pyongyang in a coma on June 13, 2017.

The U.S. envoy, who was sent to retrieve Warmbier, signed an agreement to pay the medical bill on instructions passed down from Trump, the Post reported, citing two unidentified people familiar with the situation.

Yun, who has since retired from the State Department, told CNN on Thursday the United States did not pay any ransom for American prisoners held by Pyongyang while he was the special representative for North Korea. He left the post in March 2018.

Last December, a U.S. court ordered North Korea to pay $501 million in damages for the torture and death of Warmbier.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

In his tweet on Friday morning, Trump defended his handling of hostage negotiations and slammed efforts by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

Speaking to reporters later on Friday, Trump said “that was a fake news report that money was paid.”

“I haven’t paid money for any hostage,” he said. “We don’t pay money for hostages.”

In his tweet Trump noted that the Obama administration had swapped five Taliban prisoners to secure the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a U.S. Army sergeant who has since been dishonorably discharged. He accused Obama officials of paying ransom money in exchange for the return of four detained Americans in 2016, a charge the Obama administration has denied.

The Obama administration had said the payment of $400 million to Iran settled a longstanding Iranian claim at the Hague that coincided with four detained Americans’ return but was not a ransom.

Obama had also defended the deal that led to Bergdahl’s release and later changed the way the U.S. government handles cases in which Americans are detained by militant groups following a six-month review.

A spokeswoman for Obama’s office had no immediate comment on Trump’s tweet.

Reporting by Makini Brice, Susan Heavey and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish