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Trump's Defense of Kim in US Student's Death Riles Some Lawmakers

FILE - Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea, Feb. 29, 2016. The American college student, released by North Korea in a coma after almost a year and a half in captivity, died June 19, 2017.

U.S. lawmakers expressed anger Thursday about President Donald Trump's defense of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who claimed he knew nothing about the alleged torture of a jailed U.S. college student who later died.

Otto Warmbier, charged with stealing a propaganda poster during an organized tour, was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor in North Korea in March 2016.

Freed 15 months later, Warmbier, in a comatose state, died shortly after he was brought back to the United States.

Trump, speaking after his summit meeting with Kim in Hanoi, said Kim told him he felt "very badly about it" and that "he didn't know about it, and I will take him at his word. ... He knew the case very well, but he knew it later. ... I don't believe that he would have allowed that to happen. Those prisons are rough — they're rough places, and bad things happen."

Several members of Congress said they had a hard time believing not only that Kim had no knowledge of the Warmbier case, but also that Trump had more faith in Kim than in his own intelligence agencies.

'Very gullible'

"I think the president is very gullible in this regard. He seems to have a very odd affinity toward dictators," Democratic Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii told VOA, while Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, also a Democrat, said Trump's attempt to "exonerate" Kim was "abysmal."

"This is a guy who is the maximum leader and when there are Americans in custody there, Kim Jong Un knows how important that is," Kaine said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said there was "something wrong" with Trump for choosing to believe "thugs."

But Republican Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota said what Trump says in public about Kim might be different from what he privately feels.

"He may very well be saying that so that he can continue a dialogue with North Korea rather than creating another area in which that becomes an item of discussion," Rounds said to VOA.

FILE - Fred and Cindy Warmbier watch as their son Otto's casket is placed in a hearse after funeral services, in Wyoming, Ohio, June 22, 2017.
FILE - Fred and Cindy Warmbier watch as their son Otto's casket is placed in a hearse after funeral services, in Wyoming, Ohio, June 22, 2017.

There has been no comment from Warmbier's parents, who were Trump's guests at the 2018 State of the Union address, when he condemned the "depraved character" of the North Korean state and blamed its "dictatorship" for Warmbier's injuries and death.

It is still unclear what caused Warmbier to fall into a coma while imprisoned in North Korea, but his parents say he was tortured.

A U.S. federal judge in November ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million in damages to Warmbier's family, but it is highly unlikely they will ever see the money.

VOA's Michael Bowman on Capitol Hill contributed to this report.