Father of Freed North Korean Hostage Criticizes Obama Administration's Handling of Case

Portman says three Americans remain imprisoned, presses international community to take action

Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier / Getty Images
Fred Warmbier, father of Otto Warmbier / Getty Images
June 15, 2017

The family of newly freed North Korea detainee Otto Warmbier criticized the Obama administration's handling of their son's January 2016 detention and credited the Trump administration at least in part for his release this week.

Fred Warmbier said Thursday that the family followed the Obama administration's advice not to seek media attention and to keep a low profile "without result."

He then thanked the Trump administration for its efforts.

"They have brought our Otto home," he told reporters at a press conference at southern Ohio's Wyoming High School, where his son had graduated.

Pressed on whether President Obama and his team at the State Department could have done more, Warmbier said: "The results speak for themselves."

Warmbier also said he doesn't believe North Korea's explanation for their son's coma, which the government in Pyongyang has said Otto suffered from during his entire captivity.

Regardless of the cause, Warmbier said the North Korean government never let them know anything about their son's condition.

"We went for 15 months without a word about Otto," he said. "It was only a week ago that we were informed that the North Korean government now claims he was in a coma for almost all of that time."

"Even if you believe their explanation of botulism and a sleeping pill causing the coma—and we don't—there is no excuse for any civilized nation to have kept his condition secret and denied him top-notch medical care for so long," he said.

Earlier Thursday, North Korea broke its silence on the release of Warmbier, a 22-year-old University of Virginia college student, who is currently in a coma. A one-line report from the government in Pyongyang said he was being released for humanitarian reasons.

Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio), who has worked closely with the Warmbier family to try to secure their son's release, said Thursday the only reason the family and the U.S. government were able to learn that he has been in a coma for at least 15 months "was because the North Koreans had detained two additional Americans and they were interested in talking about a potential line of communication regarding all the detainees."

There are three American detainees still in North Korea—two who are newly detained and one who was previously detained, Portman told Fox News Thursday.

"Given what's happened I think the international community should step up and be much more aggressive in helping us to obtain the release of those three individuals but also putting pressure on the North Korean regime on a whole series of issues including, obviously, their development of nuclear weapons and the capability to deliver them," he said.

"It's time for us to truly treat them as the pariah country that they are," he said. "That's going to require not just the United States but other countries to join as well."

State Department press secretary Heather Nauert later Thursday provided new details about the Trump administration’s efforts to secure Warmbier’s release. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson briefed Trump about the Americans imprisoned in North Korea in February, she said.

At that time, "the president directed the secretary to take all appropriate measures to secure the release of American citizens held in North Korea, and the secretary began the effort and routinely updated the president," she said.

In March, the State Department’s Special Representative for North Korea policy Joe Yun met with high level representatives from the North Korean ministry of foreign affairs on the margins of meeting in Norway to talk about the detained American citizens. On June 6 Yun  traveled to New York to meet with North Korean diplomats. After that meeting, Tillerson authorized Yun to travel to North Korea to negotiate Warmbier’s release, which he did on June 12.

"After several hours of discussions, the North Koreans agreed to his release," she said. "Immediate arrangements were made for Mr. Warmbier to leave North Korea and return home."

"There are three additional Americans being held in North Korea. We hope that they are able to return home," she said, thanking international partners, especially officials in Sweden, for their "tireless efforts to assist Mr. Warmbier."

Nauert stressed that the discussions held to secure Warmbier's release did not amount to a change in U.S. policy of not negotiating or paying ransom for the return of Americans.

"A negotiation implies that we are willing to give up something in exchange for something in return – this was not a negotiation. This was … we want to come get our guy."

She declined to say what had changed at the State Department to win Warmbier's release, noting that consular officials were "extremely concerned" about this case and others involving imprisoned Americans last year as well.

Pressed to say what Trump did differently than Obama, she said: "I know that the president not long after the inauguration said that this was going to be a priority and authorized his secretary of State to get this done, but beyond that, I really can't say."

Warmbier's criticism of the Obama administration's handling of the hostage situation follows similar sentiments over the past several years from other families of prisoners held overseas.

Carl and Marsha Mueller—whose daughter Kayla Mueller was taken hostage by the Islamic State in 2013 and killed in 2015—accused the Obama administration of threatening to prosecute them if they agreed to pay the $6.2 million ransom ISIS demanded for their daughter's release.

The mother of James Foley, a U.S. journalist beheaded by the Islamic State, had expressed outrage at how the U.S. government dealt with her son's case. Shortly after his death in 2014, she too said the Justice Department had threatened family members with prosecution if they raised ransom money to free him.

The Obama administration successfully secured the release of five U.S. prisoners held in Iran as part of a prisoner swap, including Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian, Marine veteran Amir Hekmati, and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini. The negotiations for those prisoners' release took place in "parallel" discussions to those aimed at rolling back Iran's nuclear program.

Iran has imprisoned an additional four dual-Iranian citizens or people with western ties in the wake of the signing of the nuclear agreement by Iran, the United States, and other world powers. The families of some of these new prisoners also have expressed frustration with the State Department's handling of their cases.

After criticism from families, in the late summer of 2015, Obama created a new hostage envoy position and filled it with a career diplomat, James O'Brien. O'Brien had served as a senior adviser to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and serves as vice chairman of the Albright Stonebridge Group, her consulting firm.

Obama created the position only after a string of negative press stories and bipartisan Congressional action on the issue.

The family complaints had prompted Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin (D., Md.), who now serves as the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, to write a bill with Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) that would have created a hostage czar with powers to coordinate and unify the government's response to hostage situations.

Cardin was active in trying to work with the Obama administration to help a constituent, Warren Weinstein, who al Qaeda had held prisoner until the CIA accidentally killed him in a U.S. drone attack in early 2015.

"Too frequently, the suffering families of hostages were left in the dark, unsure who in government was working exclusively to ensure the safe return home of their loved ones," he said in 2015.

"There are no remedies to the pain the Weinsteins and other affected families have endured, but we must as a nation, respond more effectively to these tragedies," he said.

After complaints from families, the administration stopped threatening loved ones of captured Americans with prosecution if they try to negotiate directly with the extremist groups or attempt to round up funds for ransom demands.

Update 4:33 p.m.: This post has been updated to reflect comment from the State Department.

Published under: North Korea