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President Donald Trump’s comment that he takes Kim Jong Un “at his word” that he had no role in North Korea’s torture of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier provoked criticism from lawmakers that traditional concerns about human rights are taking a back seat in his foreign policy.
After a meeting in Hanoi Thursday that ended without progress on elimination of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, Trump told reporters that Kim “felt bad” about the imprisonment and torture of Warmbier, who died after being detained in North Korea for more than 17 months.
“In those prisons and those camps you have a lot of people, and some really bad things happened to Otto, some really, really bad things,” Trump said. “But he tells me he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”
Members of Congress compared Trump’s reluctance to criticize Kim with his refusal to condemn Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for his alleged role in the murder of U.S.-based columnist Jamal Khashoggi last year, or to dispute Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial that his country interfered in the 2016 U.S. election to help Trump win.
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“Our intel community is telling us what Putin knew about the election, what MBS knew about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and what Kim Jong Un knew about the brutalization and murder of Otto Warmbier,” said Democratic Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia. “And I don’t know why the president would want to come to the aid of people who have done these horrible things.”
Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who has backed a hard line on North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, agreed with Kaine’s assessment that Kim was responsible for Warmbier’s death.
“Look, the blood of Otto Warmbier is on Kim Jong Un’s hands,” he said. “He’s responsible for the death. There’s no doubt in my mind about that.”
While Secretary of State Michael Pompeo frequently tells reporters that he brings up human rights violations in private meetings with world leaders, the Trump administration usually saves public condemnation for countries it considers its top adversaries, especially the regimes running Iran and Venezuela.
On Wednesday, a White House summary of a visit by Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and Middle East adviser, to Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia made no mention of Khashoggi’s death or human rights concerns. While U.S. intelligence agencies believe the crown prince took part in the decision to murder Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Trump has said “maybe he did, maybe he didn’t.”
Trump has said “if we abandon Saudi Arabia, it would be a horrible mistake” because of its role as a key U.S. ally in the Middle East and its promises to buy billions of dollars of U.S.-made weapons.
Trump flew halfway around the world for his second summit with Kim, betting that his personal diplomacy could overcome sticking points both sides have known about for years.
But the collapse of the talks in Hanoi without agreement raised new doubts about Trump’s use of face-to-face diplomacy laced with flattery for adversaries such as Kim, Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping.
Democratic Representative Adam Schiff of California, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that Trump’s “credulous acceptance” of Kim’s assurances on Warmbier “harkens back to Trump’s acceptances of other equally implausible denials from other dictators.”
Kim’s assurances to Trump that he didn’t know of Warmbier’s plight are at odds with the international uproar over his treatment and North Korea’s very public defense of imprisoning him.
Warmbier was a 21-year-old University of Virginia junior on a group tour when he was seized by North Korean authorities in January 2016, and accused of trying to steal a propaganda poster praising Kim’s father. He was forced to recite a videotaped confession in which he said he took the poster at the behest of the CIA and an Ohio church.
He was initially sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was returned to the U.S. in June 2017 in a comatose state — brain-dead, blind and deaf. North Korea said he fell ill from botulism. He died shortly afterward in Ohio, his home state.
At the time, Trump called his treatment “a disgrace” and said that the North Korean government was a “brutal regime.”