Sen. Portman on N. Korea: ‘We can’t be naïve about what they did to Otto’

Sen. Rob Portman said the United States cannot “be naïve” in its dealings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the “brutal nature of a regime” whose mistreatment of Otto Warmbier led to his death in 2017.

Speaking on the Senate floor after President Donald Trump said earlier Thursday in Hanoi he did not believe the “top leadership” in North Korea knew of Warmbier being badly treated in prison, Portman, R-Ohio, said Warmbier’s “detainment and his sentence were appalling; unacceptable by any standards.”

“We can’t be naïve about what they did to Otto, about the brutal nature of the regime that would do this to an American citizen,” said Portman.

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Warmbier, who was from the Cincinnati area and attended the University of Virginia, was seized by North Korean officials during a trip to the reclusive country. While in prison, Warmbier suffered a severe brain injury and he died in 2017 in a Cincinnati hospital just days after Pyongyang released him.

At a news conference in Hanoi, Trump said Kim told him during a summit that “he felt badly” about Warmbier’s death. Trump said Kim “tells me he didn’t know about” Warmbier’s deteriorating health during his time in prison.

“I know the Warmbier family very well,” Trump said. “I think they’re an incredible family. What happened is horrible. I really believe something very bad happened to him.”

But Portman, who favors talks with Pyongyang on reducing its arsenal of nuclear weapons, cast doubt on Kim’s claim, asking, “Who did the North Korean government tell about the fact that he had this brain damage? Portman asked. “No one. Unbelieveable.”

Other Ohio lawmakers were even blunter in their criticisms.

“Warmbier’s life was taken by the abusive and oppressive regime in North Korea,” Turner said. “As the head of that regime, Kim Jong-Un bears full responsibility for Otto’s death.”

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said that “North Korea murdered” Warmbier and Trump “has a responsibility to make sure they face the consequences. Anything short of that is unacceptable.”

“The president of the United States is sending a message to dictators around the world that he believes autocrats when they lie or when they cover up, or when they justify policies that result in the deaths of human beings,” Brown said.

Congressman Warren Davidson, R-Troy, said Warmbier “didn’t die from working too hard.”

“He died because he was mistreated by the people of North Korea. Improving our relationship with North Korea begins with the leadership of North Korea improving how they treat others. The president’s reaction today shows where we are in the negotiation process. No deal,” Davidson said.

Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Upper Arlington, said it was “hard for me to believe that Kim Jong-un had no knowledge of Otto Warmbier’s treatment. Regardless of whether he was aware or not, he is ultimately responsible.”

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“Any leader who allows gulags to operate in their country and allows thousands to die as a result is responsible for each and every one of those deaths,” Stivers said.

Warmbier’s 2017 death came nearly three years after the release of West Carrollton resident Jeffrey Fowle.

Fowle, a longtime Moraine city employee, was freed from North Korea in October 2014 after more than six months of captivity. He returned to the Dayton area on a military plane landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Fowle was arrested in May of that year for leaving a Bible in a nightclub in the northern port city of Chongjin. Christian proselytizing is considered a crime in North Korea.

Fowle’s experience in captivity paled in comparison to that of Warmbier, who was imprisoned for more than a year before being released in vegetated state shortly before his death.

Held in a hotel room, Fowle said he was given three meals a day, but spent at least 23 hours in isolation each day. It was those initial days in detention, he said, that were the “worst part of the whole experience.”

“I was in information blackout, completely for the first few weeks,” Fowle told this news organization just days after his return. “Even up until the final day, I didn’t understand most of what was going on. But the first few days and weeks were the worst. I had visions of my wife not knowing anything.”

After more than a month in detention, Fowle met with the Swedish ambassador, lifting some of his deeper concerns. Fowle said he was repeatedly questioned during his detainment but never physically harmed.


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