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- US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say if he believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knew of the mistreatment of American student Otto Warmbier when he was imprisoned by the regime.
- Warmbier was imprisoned for 17 months and died soon after he was returned to the US in a vegetative state in June 2017, when Pompeo was director of the CIA.
- Pompeo’s comments came after Trump faced sharp bipartisan criticism for saying he took Kim "at his word" that North Korea’s top leadership did not know of the conditions Warmbier endured.
- Trump later implied that he was "misinterpreted," but he did not specifically point to the North Korean leader as being responsible for Warmbier’s death.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to say whether he believes North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knew of the mistreatment of American student Otto Warmbier — which happened while he was the director of the CIA.
Pompeo blamed "the North Korean regime" rather than Kim himself when asked if he thought Kim was responsible for Warmbier in an interview published by USA Today on Sunday.
"The North Korean regime is responsible for the death Otto Warmbier and the humanitarian violations that are continuing to take place," he said, without mentioning Kim by name.
USA Today said Pompeo "fell silent" when he was asked the question again, and then said that he had already answered the question.
Pompeo served as CIA Director from January 2017 to April 2018.
Warmbier, a 22-year-old student at the University of Virginia, was on a five-day tour of the country when he was accused of stealing a propaganda poster and summarily sentenced to 15 years in hard labor.
In June 2017 — when Pompeo was CIA director — Warmbier was repatriated to the US after serving 17 months, but was found to be in vegetative state. He died shortly after.
When Warmbier was returned in an extended coma, North Korea claimed that he had contracted botulism and went into a coma after taking a pill to help him sleep, despite reports that he was tortured.
Pompeo’s comments to USA Today came after US President Donald Trump was condemned by bipartisan politicians and Warmbier’s own parents for saying that he accepted Kim’s assertion that he and the North Korean regime’s "top leadership" were unaware of the "horrible" conditions that Warmbier endured.
Trump said he would take Kim "at his word."
"I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen," Trump said during a press conference in Vietnam as the two leaders met for a summit on Thursday. "It just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough, they’re rough places and bad things happened."
"I don’t believe he knew about it," Trump added.
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Fred and Cindy Warmbier said: "We have been respectful during this summit process. Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto."
"Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity," they added. "No excuses or lavish praise can change that."
Trump implied a day later that he had been "misinterpreted", but still did not specifically say Kim was responsible for Warmbier’s death.
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"I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family. Remember, I got Otto out along with three others," the president tweeted, reminding his followers also that he was instrumental in the release of three Korean-American hostages in May 2018.
"The previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch," he added. "Of course I hold North Korea responsible for Otto’s mistreatment and death."
Trump added: "Most important, Otto Warmbier will not have died in vain. Otto and his family have become a tremendous symbol of strong passion and strength, which will last for many years into the future. I love Otto and think of him often!"
John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, struggled to defend Trump’s apparent refusal to blame Kim for Warmbier’s death. When asked on Sunday whether he takes Kim’s "word" on Warmbier, Bolton said his "opinion doesn’t matter."
Bolton told CNN’s "State of the Union": "The President takes [Kim] at his word."
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