President Donald Trump defended North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un when confronted Thursday about American college student Otto Warmbier, who died days after he was repatriated from the pariah state with brain damage.
Responding to questions in Hanoi before bringing an abrupt end to his second summit with Kim, Trump said he does not believe that the North Korean autocrat knew about Warmbier’s condition until after the fact.
“He tells me he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word,” Trump said of how he could continue calling the young dictator “my friend.”
Trump said he has talked to Kim about Warmbier, and that Kim “feels very badly.” “I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen. It just wasn’t to his advantage,” Trump added. “Those prisons are rough, rough places and bad things happen.”
Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia student, was touring North Korea when he was arrested for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign. He was sentenced to fifteen years hard labor.
In June 2017, after 17 months imprisonment, Warmbier was released on “humanitarian grounds.” He arrived back in Ohio in a coma, and died six days later.
North Korean officials have said Warmbier suffered a brain injury after contracting botulism, a form of poisoning, but U.S. doctors found no evidence of the condition.
After Warmbier’s death, Trump vowed to press North Korea on its abysmal human rights record. But as Trump has sought to seal the denuclearization of North Korea in talks with Kim, the issue has been relegated to the back burner. Human rights was not on the agenda at either of the summits, although in Singapore Trump briefly said the meeting wouldn’t have happened without Warmbier.
Instead, Trump and Kim appeared to have developed a close kinship. “We like each other,” Trump said when asked Thursday how he established rapport with Kim, who is almost 40 years his junior.
Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted Thursday that “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime.”
Trump has shown admiration for other dictators and political strongmen. Trump has praised Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal extrajudicial war on drugs and was deferential to Russian president Vladimir Putin during a summit last July.
In November, Trump stuck by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman amid a mounting body of evidence of that implicated him in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
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Write to Laignee Barron at Laignee.Barron@time.com