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Fred Warmbier hopes his presence at Olympics is reminder of brutality of the Kim regime

by Lester Holt /  / Updated 
Image: Fred Warmbier and Lester Holt
Fred Warmbier speaks to NBC News' Lester Holt on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

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PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — The father of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly after being released from prison in North Korea last year, said he hopes his family's presence at the Olympics is a physical reminder of the power and brutality of the Kim regime.

"I'm telling the truth about the regime's treatment of my son. But guess what, they do this to countless other people," Fred Warmbier said in an exclusive interview with NBC News on the sidelines of the PyeongChang Winter Olympics. "This isn't defiance. This is telling the truth. This is standing up and being the voice of Otto."

Since arriving in South Korea as a personal guest of Vice President Mike Pence, Warmbier has met with several North Korean defectors and he said because of Otto's ordeal, he feels a connection with them.

"The pain and suffering that they've lived through for decades under the Kim family, it's very hard to be around them," he said. "But in the same light, I feel that I want to help them."

Warmbier added that North Korea is "not really participating" in the Winter Olympics and said he did not find it difficult seeing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister enjoying the moment at Friday's Opening Ceremony.

Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of the North Korean leader, was in the south for the Winter Olympics amid a recent detente between the two neighbors, despite escalating tensions over the North's weapons program last year and pressure from Seoul's allies in Washington.

"We have to put this in context in the spirit of the Olympics and why we're here. And so when you put it that way they're not really participating in the Olympics," said Warmbier, who is the personal guest of Vice President Mike Pence at the Games.

"Their athletes are not exchanging ideas with other athletes in the Olympic Village or really participating, so that's a political statement," he added.

"This is not political for me. Their treatment of Otto is their standard, that's the way they do business," he said.

Otto, a student at the University of Virginia, was detained in Pyongyang in January 2016 while on a tourist trip to North Korea. He was charged with committing a hostile act against the government after officials said he had tried to steal a propaganda banner from a hotel.

The 22-year-old was convicted and sentenced to 15 years' hard labor, but was released 17-months later suffering from extensive brain damage. Otto was returned to the U.S. in an unconscious state, but died a week later at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center.

His doctors told reporters at the time that Otto had suffered from extensive brain damage for more than a year and that he had been in a state of unresponsive wakefulness and wasn't aware of his surroundings.

President Trump recognized the Warmbier family during his first State of the Union address and praised them for their for their courage and strength.

After the address, Warmbier said he was approached by Ji Seong-ho, a North Korean defector whom Trump also recognized during the address. Speaking through an interpreter, Ji asked to show Warmbier his phone.

"He pulls out his cellphone and he shows me a picture of Otto's grave," he said. "He flew to Cincinnati and visited Otto's grave." Warmbier, who was moved by Ji’s gesture, added That's the North Korean spirit."

South Korean officials said Saturday that President Moon Jae-in has been invited to North Korea "at an early date," potentially setting up the first meeting of Korean leaders in more than 10 years.

The invitation came during talks and a lunch Moon hosted with Kim at the presidential Blue House in Seoul.

Warmbier said he's hopeful that the talks can move the countries forward toward a more open and free North Korea.

"Cindy and I are glad that the era of strategic patience has ended," he said. "It's two years too late for Otto and our family, but we hope that this can make it better for others."

Lester Holt reported from PyeongChang, South Korea. Saphora Smith and Chelsea Bailey reported from New York.

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