The former US diplomat who negotiated the release of Otto Warmbier from North Korea in 2017 has said the administration of President Donald Trump should honour the promise it made to pay $2 million for his freedom.
In an interview with CNN, Joseph Yun, who was US special representative for North Korea affairs in the summer of 2017, said North Korea demanded $2 million for Mr Warmbier’s medical care after he was arrested in January 2016 for attempting to steal a propaganda poster from a hotel in Pyongyang.
Sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years, North Korea claims that 22-year-old Mr Warmbier fell into a coma the same day, although they only informed the US of his condition 15 months later.
Tasked with winning the release of the University of Virginia student, Mr Yun said, “As soon as the North Korean side told me that his bill for $2 million would have to be paid, of course, I contacted my boss, then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to ask him.
“And he got back to me very quickly thereafter to say ‘Yes, go ahead and sign’.”
Mr Yun said he understood that Mr Tillerson had passed the request on to President Trump, who had approved the deal.
Mr Warmbier was evacuated and arrived in Cincinnati on June 13, 2017, with doctors assessing that he was in a vegetative state. He died nine days later.
North Korean doctors insist Mr Warmbier had contracted botulism. US physicians did not conduct an autopsy, at the request of his family, but detected extensive loss of brain tissue consistent with a cardiopulmonary event brought on by a lack of oxygen.
President Trump was quick to deny that the US paid for Mr Warmbier’s release, declaring on April 26, “We did not pay money for our great Otto. There was no money paid. There was a fake news report that money was paid. I’ve never paid any money for a hostage that I’ve gotten out”.
That position was echoed on Sunday by John Bolton, the US national security advisor.
“It is very clear to me from looking into it in the past few days that nobody was paid”, Mr Bolton told Fox News. “That is clear”.
Leonid Petrov, head of postgraduate studies at the International College of Management in Sydney and the former chair of Korean Studies at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, says Washington’s refusal to keep its word endangers its reputation with enemies and allies alike.
“Something like this acts as a major dissuading factor for any government that is involved in any sort of negotiations with this US administration”, he told The Telegraph. “The lesson for governments around the world is that you should not go into a deal with the US because you just cannot trust them.
“Of course there are those who will say that Washington cannot pay them because the money will go on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons or missiles, but then they should not have made the deal.
“If they promised to pay the $2 million, then they have a moral obligation to honour that promise”, he added.
In discussions over the abolition of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programmes, Washington has promised to provide aid and economic assistance as soon as the government of Kim Jong-un carries out the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of its weapons of mass destruction capabilities.
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