They shouldn’t take it personally. Kim, Putin, Mohammed bin Salman: Trump usually takes the world’s strongmen at their word when they deny wrongdoing. (Assad is a strange exception.) Decide for yourself whether that’s driven by a cynical sense of what realpolitik requires, naivete about how ruthless figures like Kim are capable of being, or some vague sense of kinship with powerful people who are endlessly being accused of wrongdoing by their enemies.
Otto Warmbier's parents respond to Trump with a statement:
"Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto… No excuses or lavish praise can change that." pic.twitter.com/PuMgw8PIxC
— Aidan McLaughlin (@aidnmclaughlin) March 1, 2019
The excuse for giving Kim the benefit of the doubt on Warmbier (“I don’t believe that he would have allowed that to happen”) is that dealmaking with foreign degenerates always requires looking the other way at misdeeds. Lay aside the improbability that Kim’s deputies would have taken it upon themselves to rough up an American prisoner without the Dear Leader knowing despite the potential military consequences once the United States found out. Kim’s lying and Trump knows he’s lying but some ancillary white lies will need to be tolerated in the interests of diplomatic goals. They always are.
Trump didn’t tolerate the lie, though, he amplified it. He vouched for the character of Kim Jong Un, cult leader and warden of a nation-sized gulag. The great fear of humanitarian interventionists is that working with foreign bad guys eventually leads to making excuses for them, and here Trump was seemingly proving the point. All he had to say was that he had raised the subject of Warmbier with Kim, Kim denied knowing, Trump sides with U.S. intelligence in gravely doubting that, but they agreed to return to the topic later in the interests of keeping talks moving. Once an agreement is reached on nukes and North Korea begins to receive economic relief, he might have added, the United States will propose further talks on human rights in exchange for new economic opportunities.
An American family has been victimized by a foreign regime. When forced to choose between them, America’s president should stand with the family. This isn’t hard.
The saddest part is that the return of Otto Warmbier to the United States was a modest diplomatic success for him. He leveraged it shrewdly too, inviting Fred and Cindy Warmbier to last year’s State of the Union and acknowledging them in his speech. “The dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor,” he noted at the time. Does he think “the dictatorship” in the world’s most Stalinist country operates without the knowledge of the dictator, particularly in matters bearing directly on relations with enemy powers?
Otto Warmbier was a hardworking student at the University of Virginia. On his way to study abroad in Asia, Otto joined a tour to North Korea. At its conclusion, this wonderful young man was arrested and charged with crimes against the state. 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. He passed away just days after his return.
Otto’s Parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, are with us tonight — along with Otto’s brother and sister, Austin and Greta. You are powerful witnesses to a menace that threatens our world, and your strength inspires us all. Tonight, we pledge to honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.
Warmbier’s memory wasn’t honored yesterday.