We previously discussed how National Security Adviser John Bolton confirmed the story dismissed by President Donald Trump as “fake news” about the U.S. agreeing to pay North Korean $2 million for student Otto Warmbier. He insisted “We did not pay money for our great Otto” and also denied that they would ever pay money for such a release. The Post reported that, while it was unclear whether the money had been paid, the United States agreed to pay for the release by calling the payment reimbursement for medial expenses — expenses incurred by the abuse of Warmbier at the hands of the North Koreans. Now, former State Department Special Representative for North Korea Joseph Yun has confirmed that it was made clear to him that Trump personally approved the payment.
Warmbier was detained by North Korean officials in January 2016. He was returned in a nonresponsive state with severe brain damage due to the abuse by the North Koreans. He arrived in the United States on June 13, 201, and died six days later.
Yun said that he asked Washington if he should sign the agreement to pay North Korea for Warmbier and that then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told him to do so. He said that the approval was made quickly and it was clear that Trump had signed off on the payment for an effective hostage. In fairness to Trump, other presidents have been accused of effective payments for hostages but this is a direct, signed, contractual agreement for such a release in exchange for $2 million.
Trump publicly called the story “fake news” and said “We don’t pay money for hostages. The Otto case was a very unusual case but I just want to let you know, no money was paid for Otto.”
Warmbier’s father said that he was unaware of the payment and referred to it as “ransom.”
It is clear that the U.S. broke its long-standing commitment not to pay for hostages and then broke that promise. Neither is a good thing. The United States must deal with authoritarian nations all the time, including our own allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Not only did Trump establish that the United States would agree to pay for hostages but also that the United States could not be expected to honor nation-to-nation contracts. This was not some contractor on a building site in Manhattan where you just say “take me to court.” By agreeing to the payment, Trump created new and damaging precedent while underlying the credibility of the country in entering such contractual agreements.
It now appears confirm that Trump was involved in the decision to obligate the United States to pay for Warmbier. This will be raised in the future when the country insists that it does not negotiate to pay for hostages. Next time U.S. personnel are seized or U.S. citizens arrested, the same type of payments are likely to be demanded for “medical” or “support” costs.
At the same time, the breaking of the agreement will be raised as to whether any agreement by the United States can be trusted. This agreement is worthy of congressional oversight investigation. Indeed, there is far more at stake in this controversy than some of the subpoena fights being waged by the House.