Co-host of the NPR (National Public Radio) program, “Here And Now”, Audie Cornish, interviewed Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield yesterday on a story she authored that is still resonating internationally. Before we review her comments and her story, let’s set the background briefly.
Otto Warmbier was a 21 year old student at the University of Virginia, who elected to participate in a study abroad program in late 2015, part of which found him taking a 5 day side excursion from Hong Kong, to Pyongyang, North Korea at the end of December of that year.
As he was leaving the country, in January of 2016, he was arrested at the airport, detained by government authorities, accused and charged with having removed a propaganda poster from the hotel premises he was staying at while on the tour. The slogan on the poster – “Let’s arm ourselves strongly with Kim Jong-il’s patriotism!”
A proceeding that Human Rights Watch characterized as a “kangaroo trial” replete with the customary forced confession ensued and Otto was convicted on charges of a “hostile act against the state”.
During the trial proceedings, Warmbier was coerced into reading from a handwritten self denunciation that declared he was prompted to steal the poster at the behest of; the Methodist church, the United States government and a University of Virginia ‘secret society’. The motive that Warmbier was intimidated into ascribing to his actions, was “to harm the work ethic and motivation of the Korean people” and bring home a “trophy.”
The court, after a one hour “trial”, sentenced Warmbier to 15 years imprisonment and hard labor. Incredible as it may seem, even a janitor accidentally bumping such a ubiquitous item of public propaganda, received a harsh prison sentence in the DPRK’s notorious gulag system for the unintended offense against the state and its’ “Dear Leader”. Such punishments are used by the regime to keep the population in a state of constant terror.
The Obama Administration, including Secretary of State John Kerry and his envoy, the Swedish Ambassador together with seasoned negotiator, former Ambassador and Governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson and his top aide, Mickey Bergman, engaged in negotiations to secure release of Warmbier.
The process was unsuccessful, but not for lack of intense and persistent effort from Richardson and Berman. Richardson believes that dictator Kim was fully briefed and in charge of the parrying with negotiators and had no intentions of releasing Warmbier without some material advantage connected with doing so. Trump provided that.
It was only in late May of 2017, four months into Donald Trump’s term, that the North Korean regime re-started talks on Warmbier’s status. It was not until June 6th of that year, that the DPRK authorities that State Department envoy, Joseph Yun was dealing with, bothered to disclose to him that Otto Warmbier was “oh, by the way, in a vegetative state”.
The story they advanced to Yun, was that Warmbier had a food-borne bout of botulism while in custody post sentencing and become comatose after being given a sleeping pill. Yun and an emergency doctor, Michael Flueckiger arrived in Pyongyang on June 12 to effect the release and repatriation of Warmbier, proposed by North Korean authorities on “humanitarian grounds”.
There is a fair amount of controversy regarding just what the North Korean government did to Otto while he was under their control. Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy – particularly Otto’s father Fred, who has consistently spoken on the family’s behalf – have maintained that they do not believe the official story given by the North Koreans. He believes that North Korean prison officials committed abuse and trauma against his son which directly or indirectly resulted in Otto’s condition.
Otto died on American soil on June 19th – six days after his unconscious body returned to the United States. What the actual cause of Warmbier’s death was, is inconclusive, as a formal autopsy was not performed. Examining physicians at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center reported that they were not able to identify signs of physical trauma, but at the same time, are not certain what caused the neural damage to Warmbier, although they reject the story of botulism.
The Guardian U.K. reported at the time that Lakshmi Sammarco, a coroner in Warmbier’s home state of Ohio, said the 22-year-old had died from a lack of oxygen and blood to the brain but could not explain what caused his neurological condition. “We don’t know what happened to him, and this is the bottom line,” Sammarco said, adding that the cause of the death may never be known.
Despite this and despite reports that an intelligence memo claimed indications that Warmbier was physically abused – we can say with certainty that at the very minimum, Warmbier was subjected to psychological abuse and torment. The reason being, that it is a widely known tactic used on political hostages that North Korea may, for reasons of wishing to use them as bargaining chips, not want to later be found to have inflicted physical injuries upon. Such infliction of mental abuse, has in previous cases involving this regime, resulted at the least, in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and in the worst cases – suicide.
In awarding Fred and Cindy $501 million in damages against the North Korean state, Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the award was “appropriate to punish and deter North Korea” for the “torture, hostage taking and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier.” This seems to suggest that there was some evidence presented in that trial that led the judge to believe physical abuse may at some point have played a role in his eventual death.
Now we come to the latest matter in this saga. The Post’s Ms. Fifield discovered the existence of an invoice submitted to Joseph Yun at the time of final arrangements to take Warmbier home. Fifield’s source for the document requested to remain anonymous. The facts Fifield uncovered disclose that the release of Otto Wambier had conditions attached to it.
Here is what Ms. Fifield told Audie Cornish on “Here And Now”:
“After the doctor had examined Otto Warmbier, the doctor was asked to write a report basically testifying that the North Koreans had taken good care of Otto Warmbier. Then they turned to Joseph Yun, who was their lead State Department envoy there, and said they would be giving him a $2 million medical bill since they had taken such good care of him. It was kind of a setup there. Joseph Yun was told that he would not be able to repatriate Otto without that bill being signed. He then went and called his boss, Rex Tillerson, who called President Trump. And that authorization was given because they wanted to get Otto Warmbier home and were going to do whatever it took.”
Subsequent to Fifield’s report, she contacted Donald Trump’s press secretary Sarah Huckabee-Sanders via email. Sanders, according to Ms. Fifield, “declined to comment on my reporting. She said that ‘they don’t comment on hostage negotiations, which is why we’re so successful’”.
The circumstances described clearly amount to a successful attempt by the North Korean government to extort money and exonerating statements from the State Department delegation deputized to recover Otto Warmbier.
Today, Donald Trump is denying that his administration made any payment to Kim’s regime.
In spite of Trump’s tweet, the White House has neither issued any definitive statement confirming that the money was not paid to North Korea, nor provided any documentation to verify the outcome, if any, of the demand for money that Joseph Yun had to agree to on behalf of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and ultimately, President Trump. Neither Mr. Yun or former Secretary Tillerson has responded to media requests for comment.
Even though Trump is a certified, chronic liar – let’s go with the most generous interpretation of this and allow that the invoice has been sitting unattended to in some round file in the Treasury Department.
One may or may not fault Trump for signing off on the agreement to pay the Kim regime $2 million in exchange for the release of Otto Warmbier’s comatose body. One might not fault him for deciding to do so, given that the North Koreans would likely have continued to hold Warmbier without the agreement. But that assumes that Trump did not have some other political motive for approving the demand from the DPRK.
The problem is that Trump does not have a track record for doing anything without some personal motive and strategy. Trump is an opportunist whose calculus on decisions, invariably places himself at the center of the potential benefit equation. If he cannot parlay a presidential move into something he can boast about or cannot tick off the box labeled “self aggrandizement”, he’s not interested.
It’s not a stretch to contemplate that the motive had to do with plans he had to change tactics from playground taunts to a bromance initiative with Kim. There is a tie-in with his ambition to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. This is further bolstered by the fact that Trump has consistently maintained that he believes North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un when the “Heavenly Leader” assures him that he knew nothing of the arrest, conviction, imprisonment or medical attention Warmbier received.
Whereas, Fred and Cindy Warmbier have stated, “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. No excuses or lavish praise can change that”, Trump has repeatedly maintained the implausible notion that it is possible that Kim was out of the loop on the Warmbier episode.
“He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word,” Trump told reporters at a news conference as recently as February 28, while taking the opportunity to extol the virtues of Kim’s leadership. It’s very reminiscent of Trump’s statements about Vladimir Putin during the Helsinki summit assuring Trump that Russia did not attempt to interfere in the American presidential election.
Trump added, “I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen. Just wasn’t to his advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places. And bad things happen. But I really don’t believe he knew about it.”
Ms. Fifield of the Post, shares my view that Trump is not credible in believing that Kim was not dialed in on all of the proceedings that led to Otto Warmbier’s death, telling NPR’s Audie Cornish that:
“In a one-man autocracy like North Korea, it is just impossible to think that with such a high profile case with a healthy, young man rendered in a coma in North Korea and with this high-stakes diplomatic process going on, it’s unconscionable to think that Kim Jong Un did not know about what was going on and did not authorize things each step of the way.”
If Trump willfully chose to ignore the intelligence reports submitted to him by the Director of National Intelligence regarding Kim’s complete situational awareness of everything that happens in North Korea, that is damning. If Trump chose to deliberately dismiss such intel briefings and foster a narrative he knows is false, that is even more damning. Neither are good and either of the two prospects adds to the perception that this president and his conduct constitute an existential, ongoing threat to the national security of America.
The fact remains that neither Trump, nor his administration have any moral standing with their criticism of past administrations’ handling of hostage taking, which Warmbier’s incarceration patently was.
Now that the Warmbier’s have witnessed Trump’s feckless denials about what Kim knew or didn’t know, their view of Trump has undergone an alteration. In March, the Warmbier’s bitterly lamented Donald Trump’s “lavish praise” of Kim and Trump’s absurd excuses for the brutal North Korean dictator. It had to rub salt in their wounds to hear Trump tell of how he was seduced by Kim’s “beautiful letters” and that he and the mass murderer “fell in love”.
Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) of Warmbier’s home state of Ohio, put Trump’s coddling of tyrants in these terms:
“It sends a message to dictators — and around the world — that the president of the United States, with the values that we represent as a country, that he believes autocrats when they lie or when they cover up or when they justify policies that then result in the deaths of innocent human beings whether they’re Americans or whether they’re native peoples of those lands or anybody else.”
Were the president’s actions committed by any other government official not benefiting from the immunity Trump enjoys by virtue of his office, they would be found to be aiding and abetting an enemy – in this case, one with whom we are technically still in a status of war, if not engaged in active combat with. In other words – treason.
Today, Kim is in Vladivostok Russia, meeting with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin, of whom Trump has also spoken in glowing terms. Russia has signaled that it will provide Trump with a briefing on the outcome and the topics covered in the meeting. Trump will certainly avail himself of that, even if he has no use for the briefings of our own intelligence officials.
Some might reasonably wonder, “Whose president is this anyway?”