Politics & Government

Andy Barr disagrees with Trump, says North Korea to blame on Warmbier death

Rep. Andy Barr says he disagrees with President Donald Trump’s assertion that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is not responsible for the death of American student Otto Warmbier.

“I don’t trust Kim Jong Un, obviously the North Koreans murdered Otto Warmbier,” said the Lexington Republican, who in 2017 wrote legislation named after Warmbier that called for tougher sanctions against North Korea. “All the evidence that we have is that the North Koreans kidnapped, beat and murdered Mr. Warmbier and they should be held accountable for that. I have no doubt in my mind.”

Trump, who was in Hanoi for a summit with Kim, said the North Korean leader “felt very badly,” about Warmbier’s death, but that he believes it wasn’t to Kim’s “advantage to allow that to happen. Those prisons are rough. They’re rough places. And bad things happened.” Trump said he talked privately with Kim, adding “He tells me that he didn’t know about it and I will take him at his word.”

Warmbier, who died soon after returning home to the U.S in a comatose state, was released in 2017 after 17 months in captivity. The Cincinnati-area native and University of Virginia student had visited North Korea with a tour group after traveling in China. He was charged and convicted of a “hostile act” — trying to steal a propaganda poster — against North Korea’s authoritarian government.

Critics said Trump’s willingness to accept Kim’s account comes as he’s accepted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s denial of involvement in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and initially refused to side with the U.S. intelligence community over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial that Russia interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.

“The notion that Kim Jong Un would have been unaware of the physical condition of this very highly publicized American prisoner is just beyond belief,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia. “And if President Trump accepts Kim Jong Un saying ‘I didn’t know anything about it,’ that is just dangerously naïve. “

Barr’s 2018 Democratic challenger, Amy McGrath, questioned on Twitter whether Barr would take issue with Trump.

Barr, who has largely supported Trump and benefited from a presidential campaign visit in October 2018, said he had not seen Trump’s remarks in a press conference that aired at 2 a.m. Thursday from Vietnam. He stopped short of saying Trump was wrong to side with Kim, noting that he’d not seen the full context of Trump’s remarks.

“But in general, it’s important for Congress and the president to be clear-eyed and unambiguous in our statements to tyrants and authoritarian dictators around the globe, whether it’s Putin or Kim Jong Un,” Barr said.

He added, however, that “actions matter” and applauded Trump for cutting the summit short and “not giving an inch” in terms of sanctions relief. Trump and the U.S. delegation left Hanoi early Thursday, telling reporters the U.S. had been unable to reach an agreement over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, with the North insisting on a full removal of sanctions in exchange for shuttering a nuclear facility.

“That’s the most important thing, that we do not make concessions without concrete, verifiable steps toward denuclearization,” Barr said.

Barr said he believes that diplomacy sometimes requires a “conciliatory tone, but the conciliatory tone is only effective if it’s backed up by strength and the strength is the sanctions regime.”

Barr’s sanctions bill cleared the House, but not the Senate. He said he spoke with then-United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley who said the House vote was important to convince the U.N. Security Council to impose additional pressure on North Korea.

Lesley Clark works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, covering all things Kentucky for McClatchy’s Lexington Herald-Leader. A former reporter for McClatchy’s Miami Herald, she also spent several years covering the White House.