Just days after Otto Warmbier's death, North Korea issued its first public comments on the case on Friday. On the state-run Korean Central News Agency, a foreign ministry spokesman denied that North Korea tortured Warmbier during his 17-month imprisonment, saying that the country is the "biggest victim."
The University of Virginia student was arrested in North Korea in January 2016 for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster, and he was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. After more than a year into his sentence, Warmbier was released earlier in June after American officials learned that he was in a coma and sent a delegation to secure his freedom. But Warmbier died soon after his return to Ohio, and his family and some American officials have blamed North Korea in what the reclusive country has described as a "smear campaign."
In the days leading up to Warmbier's release, North Korea said that he had fallen into a coma last year after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. But when he returned home, American doctors said that he had suffered a "severe neurological injury." Warmbier's parents maintain that their son was tortured, but according to the KNCA, the spokesman for North Korea's foreign ministry said that allegations about Warmbier's mistreatment were "groundless."
“The fact that Warmbier died suddenly less than a week after his return to the U.S. in his normal state of health … is a mystery to us as well,” the spokesman said. “Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatment and care with all sincerity on a humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S., considering that his health got worse.”
The spokesman also claimed that the American student was a victim of Barack Obama's "strategic patience" toward North Korea, and asserted that American doctors who had helped medically evacuate Warmbier from North Korea recognized that he had received medical treatment.
Despite the spokesman's comments, The Guardian reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is skeptical about North Korea's treatment of Warmbier.
“To see a young man go over there healthy and, [after] a minor act of mischief, come home dead basically … this goes beyond any kind of understanding of law and order, of humanity, of responsibility toward any human being,” Mattis said.
President Trump called what happened to Warmbier a "disgrace," saying that things might have turned out differently if he had been released sooner. The president also reiterated his determination to "prevent such tragedies from befalling innocent people at the hands of regimes that do not respect the rule of law or basic human decency."
Pointing to the allegations of torture, North Korea called itself it is the "biggest victim" in this case. Furthermore, the country has accused the United States of staging a smear campaign that "compels us to make firm determination that humanitarianism and benevolence for the enemy are a taboo and we should further sharpen the blade of law."
This is not the first time that such accusations have been made against North Korea. Indeed, both the United States and South Korea have previously accused North Korea of using foreign detainees for diplomatic gains. Currently, three other Americans and six South Koreans remain in North Korea's custody.