The Washington Post reported today that the North Koreans dropped a $2 million surprise on Joseph Yun, a State Department official, and Michael Flueckiger, a doctor ,who flew to North Korea in 2017 to pick up Otto Warmbier after learning he was in a coma:
North Korean officials asked the doctor to write a report about his findings. “It was my impression that if I did not give them a document that I could sign off on, that would cause problems,” Flueckiger said in an interview…
“Would I have lied to get him out of there? Maybe I would have,” he said. “But I didn’t have to answer that question.”
Yun, however, was faced with a more difficult predicament.
The North Korean officials handed him a bill for $2 million, insisting he sign an agreement to pay it before they would allow him to take Warmbier home, according to the two people familiar with the situation.
Yun called then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and told him about the bill. Tillerson called Trump. They instructed their envoy to sign the piece of paper agreeing that the $2 million would be paid, the two people said.
Yun signed and they left the country with Warmbier’s comatose body. He died 6 days later. At the time the Post published its story several hours ago, it wasn’t clear if the bill had ever been paid. The NY Times subsequently reported it was still unpaid as of early 2018. Now CNN is reporting it was never paid:
The Trump administration has not paid this bill, a third source familiar with the matter told CNN Thursday, adding that North Korea did not raise the issue as it sought to begin easing the tensions with the US in 2018 nor when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo negotiated the release of three Americans that same year, the source said.
“We made clear that they were never going to get anything” when the negotiating occurred for the release of the 3 Americans, the source added.
I understand why the Trump administration didn’t mention this at the time. It would be a further outrage and maybe an embarrassment attached to what was otherwise a success story. But I really don’t think there’s any scandal in signing the document or in approving its signing. Would it have been better to tell them no and risk not bringing Warmbier home? I don’t think so. The goal was to get Warmbier away from the miserable North Korean regime. If a promise to pay is what it took, so be it.
That said, I’m relieved that we didn’t pay. The North Koreans put Warmbier through a show trial and sentenced him to a ridiculous sentence for (allegedly) taking down a banner. And then, mysteriously, he went into a coma. The North Koreans claim it was the result of food poisoning or, alternatively, an allergic reaction to a sedative. If you trust them about anything you’re a fool. Warmbier was a healthy college student. Whatever caused him to go into a coma was the fault of the North Koreans who kidnapped him on a trumped-up charge. They definitely don’t deserve to be rewarded for that behavior.