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North Korea Demanded $2 Million Before Releasing Comatose U.S. Student

WASHINGTON — North Korea billed the Trump administration $2 million for the medical care of Otto F. Warmbier, an imprisoned American student who had fallen into a coma, before agreeing to release him in 2017.

A senior American diplomat negotiating for Mr. Warmbier’s freedom accepted the bill, and Mr. Warmbier was released. He died six days later in the United States, after his parents decided to end the life support that was sustaining his vegetative state.

The bill was passed from the State Department to the Treasury Department. As of early 2018, the bill had not been paid, and it is unclear if the Trump administration has since sent any of the amount to North Korea. A payment would be widely seen as handing over ransom money, running counter to the administration’s stated policy for hostage negotiations.

The account of the bill from North Korea was first reported by The Washington Post on Thursday. A person familiar with the events confirmed the details to The New York Times.

“We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday.

Officials at the State Department and Treasury declined to comment.

The death of Mr. Warmbier has remained a persistent shadow over relations between the United States and North Korea, even though President Trump has eagerly opened diplomatic talks with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, to end its nuclear weapons program.

During a February summit meeting in Vietnam between the two leaders, Mr. Trump was asked at a news conference whether he and Mr. Kim had discussed Mr. Warmbier’s plight. Mr. Trump said, “He tells me that he didn’t know about it, and I will take him at his word.”

Mr. Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, issued a statement afterward, saying “Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto.”

Mr. Warmbier was a University of Virginia student from Ohio who joined a tour to North Korea in December 2015. In early January 2016, right before leaving the capital, Pyongyang, he was arrested on charges related to trying to take down a propaganda poster in a hotel. He was sentenced that March to 15 years of prison and hard labor, but fell into a coma during his detention. American doctors have never been able to determine the cause.

In June 2017, North Korean officials told American diplomats that Mr. Warmbier was in a coma. Joseph Yun, who at the time was the special representative for North Korea, traveled to Pyongyang to negotiate for his release. An accompanying American doctor examined Mr. Warmbier, who had been comatose for most of his 17 months in prison.

North Korean officials presented Mr. Yun with the $2 million bill and asked him to sign an agreement to pay it before leaving with Mr. Warmbier.

In December, Mr. Warmbier’s parents sued North Korea in an American court over their son’s death and were awarded with $501 million. It is unlikely that the parents will ever collect the money from Mr. Kim’s government.

North Korea released three American prisoners in May 2018, one month before Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim held their first summit meeting in Singapore.

In 2016, Mr. Trump criticized President Barack Obama for giving Iran $400 million that Mr. Obama contended at the time was meant to reimburse Iran for military equipment it bought before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The Iranian government had been trying to recover the money for decades.

Mr. Trump and other Republican politicians have said the $400 million was a ransom payment for four American prisoners freed from Iran in January 2016 after successful talks over a nuclear deal.

News credit : Nytimes