The U.S. State Department’s former top envoy on North Korea confirmed Monday he signed an agreement to pay $2 million for Otto Warmbier, an American tourist believed to be tortured to death while under arrest in Pyongyang, but that Washington never paid the bill.
Joseph Yun, who served as Special Representative for North Korea under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, told CNN that Tillerson approved of the bill and that, in his “understanding,” President Donald Trump approved of him signing the agreement.
“As soon as North Korea side [sic] told me that this bill for $2 million would have to be paid … I contacted my boss then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson … [he] got back to me very quickly thereafter to say yes, go ahead and sign,” Yun told CNN. Asked if Trump personally approved the bill, Yun said, “I never asked him [Tillerson], but that was my understanding.”
Otto Warmbier willingly traveled to North Korea in 2016 with the company “Young Pioneer Tours,” which works with Pyongyang to show Western tourists an idealized version of the country, enriching the communist regime. Tour companies bringing in foreigners are a key financial lifeline for the Kim regime, as tourism is one of the few industries not under international sanctions. North Korean police arrested Warmbier during his visit for allegedly defacing a communist propaganda poster. Upon coming into office, President Trump negotiated Warmbier’s release, but when he returned home in June 2017, Warmbier was in an advanced vegetative state. He died shortly after his return to his home state of Ohio of apparent lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.
Warmbier was 22 years old.
North Korea launched a new tourism website shortly after Warmbier’s death.
Pyongyang denies any involvement in his death despite indications that extensive torture while in its custody caused his brain damage. Upon his death, North Korean authorities claimed that Warmbier had spent most of the year he was under arrest comatose but has not provided an explanation for why.
A U.S. court ruled in January North Korea owes Warmbier’s family $500 million for his death – $450 million in punitive damages and another $50 million in medical expenses and pain and suffering for the family. North Korea returned the official documents demanding the money to the United States without opening them.
Joseph Yun told CNN he believes the United States should pay North Korea $2 million for Warmbier. CNN did not ask about the remaining $498 million North Korea owes the Warmbier family.
The alleged $2 million bill became a topic of interest this weekend when the Washington Post cited “people familiar with the situation” who claimed that Washington had promised to pay that amount for the young American. President Trump said shortly following that report’s publication that his administration never paid North Korea any amount of money for Warmbier.
“This is not the Obama Administration that paid 1.8 Billion Dollars for four hostages, or gave five terroist (sic) hostages plus, who soon went back to battle, for traitor Sgt. Bergdahl!” Trump said on Twitter, referring to U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who pled guilty to desertion after then-President Barack Obama secured his release from the Taliban.
On Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton confirmed that, to his knowledge, the agreement existed, but the State Department did not pay the money.
“This occurred before I came into the administration, but that’s my understanding, yes,” he told Fox News, answering “absolutely not” in response to whether the United States paid a ransom for Warmbier.
White House Special Assistant Steven Cheung referred to the Washington Post story as an “obvious PR stunt by North Korea and Kim Jong-un” following its publication. The story surfaced days after Kim, in a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, denounced the United States for acting “in bad faith” during his latest summit with President Trump.
In February, President Trump walked out of an in-person meeting in Vietnam with Kim because, he said, the North Koreans were too intransigent about their nuclear program.
“Basically they wanted the sanctions lifted in their entirety and we couldn’t do that,” Trump told reporters following the abrupt end of the summit. The meeting was intended to find a way to implement the Singapore Declaration, a vague document the president and dictator signed in 2018 vowing to negotiate “peace” and “denuclearization.” According to Trump, Kim attempted to use the Vietnam meeting to secure sanctions relief without promising any material changes to his country’s illegal nuclear weapons program.
The North Koreans denied Trump’s version of events and demanded the immediate firing of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the aftermath of the meeting.
“Hanoi summit gives us a lesson that whenever Pompeo pokes his nose in, the talks go wrong without any results even from the point close to success,” Kwon Jong Gun of North Korea’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said this month. “I am afraid that, if Pompeo engages in the talks again, the table will be lousy once again and the talks will become entangled.”
North Korea is a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism.