The North Korean government demanded that American officials agree to pay $2 million for the medical treatment of Otto Warmbier before releasing him to the U.S., according to multiple media reports.
The Washington Post’s Anna Fifield first detailed the arrangement on Thursday, several years after Warmbier, an American student imprisoned for stealing a propaganda poster, suffered a mysterious brain injury while in custody. He was returned to the U.S. in a coma in June 2017 and died six days later.
According to the Post, two American emissaries were sent to Pyongyang to retrieve Warmbier after the U.S. first heard of his condition. Joseph Yun, then the State Department’s special envoy to North Korea, and Michael Flueckiger, an emergency doctor, found Warmbier in a hospital unresponsive. He had been comatose for most of his imprisonment.
When the pair began negotiating Warmbier’s release, a North Korean official gave Yun a bill for $2 million, saying he would have to sign an agreement that America would pay it before the student could be released. Fifield notes Yun called then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who spoke with President Donald Trump, and was given the go-ahead to sign the document.
It’s unclear if the U.S. paid any or all of the bill.
The White House declined to comment on the reports. Both The New York Times and CBS News independently confirmed the Post’s reporting.
“We do not comment on hostage negotiations, which is why they have been so successful during this administration,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement to multiple news outlets.
A U.S. judge ordered the North Korean regime to pay Warmbier’s parents more than $500 million in December after they filed a wrongful death suit, although it’s unlikely the country will ever pay the judgment.
“Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with ‘big dreams’ and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king,” District Judge Beryl Howell wrote in her opinion. “He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home.”
Trump has touted the return of Wambier as a key part of his diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The president has championed his administration’s efforts with the North, saying the country has stopped testing intercontinental ballistic missiles and declaring the two fell in “love” at their first-ever summit in Singapore last year. Trump also said he believed Kim, who said he did not know about Warmbier’s treatment in detention or the circumstances around his death.
“He tells me he didn’t know about it, and I take him at his word,” Trump said during a press conference in Hanoi, Vietnam in February.
Tensions with Kim have increased over the past few months, however, after the Hanoi summit ended abruptly with no new deal to rein in the North’s nuclear ambitions. Pyongyang has since said it would no longer work with current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying they wanted to speak with someone more “mature.”
The country also conducted its first weapons test since the nuclear talks broke down earlier this month, saying they had experimented with a new “tactical guided weapon.” Just days earlier, Trump said he believed he personal relationship with Kim remained “very good.”
“Perhaps the term excellent would be even more accurate,” the president wrote on Twitter.