Did North Korea force a US envoy to sign off on a $2 million “bill” for medical services before releasing Otto Warmbier? According to the Washington Post, Donald Trump personally ordered Joseph Yun to sign such an agreement. But did the US ever pay the “bill”?
North Korea issued a $2 million bill for the hospital care of comatose American Otto Warmbier, insisting that a U.S. official sign a pledge to pay it before being allowed to fly the University of Virginia student home from Pyongyang in 2017.
The presentation of the invoice — not previously disclosed by U.S. or North Korean officials — was extraordinarily brazen even for a regime known for its aggressive tactics.
But the main U.S. envoy sent to retrieve Warmbier signed an agreement to pay the medical bill on instructions passed down from President Trump, according to two people familiar with the situation. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The bill went to the Treasury Department, where it remained — unpaid — throughout 2017, the people said. However, it is unclear whether the Trump administration later paid the bill, or whether it came up during preparations for Trump’s two summits with Kim Jong Un.
This morning, Trump denied paying any bill to get Warmbier released. “This is not the Obama administration,” Trump tweeted, citing the cash-for-hostages trade with Iran and the 5:1 prisoner swap for Bowe Bergdahl. He didn’t specifically deny ordering the envoy to sign the invoice, however.
Yesterday, NBC notes, the White House refused to respond specifically to the report at all, citing the need for secrecy in dealing with abductions:
Responding to questions from NBC News about the report, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday, “We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration.”
That reaction set off speculation that the bill eventually got paid, perhaps as an enticement to hold one of the two summits with Kim Jong-un. Trump’s tweets this morning appear intended to put the story to rest, at least as to whether the US paid any money to North Korea. Whether they tried to present a “bill” in exchange for Warmbier’s release, and whether the US initially agreed to pay it, is still left as an unknown — and likely will be for quite a long time to come. Even for North Korea, a ransom demand under those circumstances would be surprisingly arrogant, though, and so an order to sign off on it would be … unusual, to say the least.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, of course, but it is reason to remain a little skeptical of the initial report. It’s almost impossible to predict a set of circumstances that would allow these questions to be settled definitively, especially because of the need to keep hostage negotiations under wraps. Put this one in the “historical curiosities” file for much later clarification.