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Pyongyang Calls Itself 'Victim' in Warmbier Furor -- WSJ

24 Jun 2017 6:32 am
By Jonathan Cheng 

This article is being republished as part of our daily reproduction of WSJ.com articles that also appeared in the US print edition of The Wall Street Journal (June 24, 2017).

SEOUL -- North Korea lashed out at the U.S. over criticisms of its treatment of Otto Warmbier, the 22-year-old American student who died earlier this week after his return home in a coma, in a sharply worded statement that is likely to further inflame tensions between Washington and Pyongyang.

The remarks from North Korea's Foreign Ministry, the first since Mr. Warmbier's death, described Pyongyang as "the biggest victim" of the incident and called the University of Virginia undergraduate "a criminal who committed hostile acts" against North Korea.

The statement called the U.S. condemnations of Mr. Warmbier's treatment a "smear campaign abusing the humanitarian measure" that Pyongyang made in releasing Mr. Warmbier, who North Korea described as an agent of the Central Intelligence Agency on assignment in Pyongyang.

"Although we had no reason at all to show mercy to such a criminal of the enemy state, we provided him with medical treatments and care with all sincerity on humanitarian basis until his return to the U.S., considering that his health got worse," the unnamed spokesman said, according to a report carried by the state-controlled Korean Central News Agency.

"The U.S. is making every frantic effort to disparage the prestige of the dignified DPRK and stifle it while imposing heinous sanctions and pressure unprecedented in history," the spokesman added, using the acronym for North Korea's formal name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Mr. Warmbier, who was arrested by North Korean authorities in January last year after allegedly ripping down a propaganda poster from the wall of his Pyongyang hotel during a group tour of the isolated country, had been in a coma for more than a year when he was released by North Korea "on humanitarian grounds" earlier this month. He died six days later.

Mr. Warmbier's death has sparked a wave of anger in Washington toward Pyongyang and its treatment of detained U.S. citizens. Several congressmen have described Mr. Warmbier's death as murder, while administration officials such as Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have called Mr. Warmbier's death a reflection of "the barbaric nature of the North Korean dictatorship."

Mr. Warmbier returned home with a severe brain injury, the cause of which remains unclear. He slipped into a coma more than a year ago, U.S. officials and members of his family said. North Korea told U.S. officials during a secret meeting last week that Mr. Warmbier first lost consciousness after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. North Korea didn't address the assertion that it kept Mr. Warmbier's coma secret for a year.

The Hamilton County Coroner's Office in Ohio is investigating Mr. Warmbier's death, but the family of Mr. Warmbier has objected to an autopsy.

North Korea's Foreign Ministry said in its statement that it had returned Mr. Warmbier to the U.S. government in good condition, and that it had no knowledge of why he died so soon after his release.

"His health indicators like pulse, temperature, respiration and the examination result of the heart and lung were all normal," the spokesman said. "The fact that Warmbier died suddenly in less than a week just after his return to the U.S. in his normal state of health indicators is a mystery to us as well."

In a separate statement published minutes earlier, the North denied that it had engaged in any torture or brutal treatment of Mr. Warmbier, calling the claims "rubbish."

Sen. John McCain, among others, has suggested that Mr. Warmbier likely underwent torture during his detention.

Mr. Warmbier's death has threatened to further ratchet up tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. In Washington, a bilateral bill to block U.S. citizens from traveling to North Korea as tourists was moving forward in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had committed to review the bill, according to a statement Thursday from the bill's co-sponsors.

Young Pioneer Tours, the China-based tour agency that brought Mr. Warmbier to Pyongyang, said earlier this week that it would no longer organize tours to North Korea for U.S. citizens.

South Korea's new president, Moon Jae-in, who is due to arrive in Washington next week for a two-day summit with President Donald Trump, expressed his condolences to the Warmbier family, and on Friday, Seoul's newly appointed foreign minister expressed sympathy to Washington's top envoy in Seoul.

North Korea, in one of its statements Friday, hit out at Mr. Moon for expressing condolences to the U.S., in a rare criticism of the new South Korean leader, who campaigned on a platform of closer ties with Pyongyang.

North Korean officials hinted at the state's hard-line position on Mr. Warmbier's fate last week, saying at a public forum in Mongolia that Mr. Warmbier's punishment -- a 15-year sentence of hard labor -- was justified because he had sought to overthrow North Korea's government.

Write to Jonathan Cheng at jonathan.cheng@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 24, 2017 02:32 ET (06:32 GMT)

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