Contradicting Trump, Otto Warmbier's parents blame North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the death of their son

"Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that," Fred and Cindy Warmbier said.
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By Elisha Fieldstadt

The parents of Otto Warmbier issued a blistering statement Friday saying Kim Jong Un and his government "are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity" after President Donald Trump asserted that the North Korean dictator had been unaware of the harrowing treatment the student endured while detained there.

"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," Fred and Cindy Warmbier said in a statement. "Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that."

Warmbier was arrested for taking a propaganda banner from a hotel while on a visit to Pyongyang in January 2016. The University of Virginia student from Ohio was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, but was released after 17 months.

Warmbier, 22, died shortly after he returned to the United States.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the parents of Otto Warmbier. Maddie McGarvey / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

His parents were told he had been in a coma since not long after he was sentenced. When he was brought back to Cincinnati after his release, his father said he "was jerking violently, making these inhuman sounds.”

“He was blind, he was deaf," Fred Warmbier had said.

Trump said Thursday that Kim was not responsible for and had no knowledge of the horrific treatment Warmbier suffered while he was detained in that country for 17 months.

"Some really bad things happened to Otto — some really, really bad things. But he tells me that he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word," Trump said, referring to Kim.

"I really don't think it was in his interest at all," he added at a press conference following the collapse of a nuclear summit in Hanoi.

Kim "knew the case very well, but he knew it later," Trump said.

Trump's comments were a glaring reversal from those he made during his first State of the Union address in 2018, which the Warmbiers attended.

"After a shameful trial, the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor before returning him to America last June, horribly injured and on the verge of death," Trump said at the time. He asked the emotional Warmbiers to stand up for applause, and called them "incredible people."

"You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength truly inspires us all. Thank you," he said to them.

Trump's remarks Thursday were met with backlash from both sides of the aisle.

The president responded to the criticism in a Twitter thread on Friday, claiming his words were misinterpreted.

"I never like being misinterpreted, but especially when it comes to Otto Warmbier and his great family," Trump tweeted. "Remember, I got Otto out along with three others. The previous Administration did nothing, and he was taken on their watch. Of course I hold North Korea responsible..."

The president continued that : "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!"

Last year, an American judge ruled Warmbier's parents were entitled to more than $500 million in damages from North Korea's government.

Elisha Fieldstadt

Elisha Fieldstadt is a breaking news reporter for NBC News.