Joseph Yun, the former State Department Special Representative for North Korea, confirmed Monday that he signed an agreement to pay North Korea $2 million for the release of American student Otto Warmbier in 2017.
In an interview with CNN’s Jim Sciutto, Yun said that he did so with the approval of then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and that it was his understanding President Donald Trump had also signed off on the decision.
“As soon as North Korea side told me that this bill for $2 million would have to be paid … I contacted my boss then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson,” Yun said, noting that Tillerson “got back to me very quickly thereafter to say yes, go ahead and sign.”
The former US Special Representative added that it was his understanding the decision had been approved by Trump himself.
“That was my understanding. I never asked him, but that was my understanding,” he said when asked if he believed Tillerson had Trump’s approval.
The Trump administration has said no money has been paid for release of Warmbier, who was in a comatose state at the time of his release from North Korean custody and died a few days after returning to the United States.
Yun, now a CNN contributor, said he does not know if the Trump administration plans to pay but believes the US should meet their end of the pledge and pay the North Koreans.
White House national security adviser John Bolton also confirmed on Sunday that Yun signed a document pledging $2 million for Warmbier’s release and that the US has not made any payments.
FOX News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked Bolton whether Joseph Yun got Warmbier out by signing a pledge, Bolton responded, “yes, that is what I am told” and that it happened before he joined the administration.
When pushed on the fact the US signed the document fully intending not to honor it, Bolton only said, “I don’t know the circumstances” and added that he had been looking into the issues the past few days and that “no money was paid, that is clear.”
The National Security Council declined to comment on whether Trump approved in advance then-Secretary Tillerson’s directive to have the medical bill signed, but a spokesman for the NSC pointed to Bolton’s comments to Fox News on Sunday.
“I think when people leave government, sometimes the recollection of things that happened inside tend to be a little different from what actually happened,” he said. “But it’s very clear to me from my looking into it in the past few days, no money was paid, that is clear.”
Bolton did not clarify which former government official he was referring to as both Tillerson and Yun have left the administration.
The Washington Post was first to report that North Korea presented Yun with the invoice.
Warmbier was detained by North Korean officials in January 2016 while attempting to return to the US from a tour of the country. He was returned to his family “with severe brain damage and in a nonresponsive state” on June 13, 2017, and died six days later.
Fred Warmbier, Otto’s father, told The Washington Post he had no previous knowledge of the bill but characterized it as “ransom” for his deceased son.
Earlier this month, at an event attended by Otto Warmbier’s family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed the idea of the US paying ransom for hostages.
“Please remember that any money to a terrorist or terrorist regime gives money so that they can seize more of our people,” he said. “We cannot accept that risk. You wouldn’t ask that of us.”
While the North Koreans did not bring up the bill during Trump’s summits with Kim Jong Un in Singapore and Vietnam, a source told CNN last week there is an expectation this payment could be brought up again.
That’s especially true because the ministry of foreign affairs in North Korea is gaining influence at the negotiating table, and they are the ones who handed Yun that bill, the source said.
While the Trump administration insists that it has not made any payments to the North Korean government, its handling of this situation could become an issue in the future, according to CNN national security analyst Samantha Vinograd.
“President Trump saying something that he has no intention of actually doing is nothing new nor is the North Koreans making ridiculous requests and this is a recurring cost in two ways,” she said.
“First of all, it signals that American citizens are cash cows. If you can kidnap a US citizen, torture them and keep them alive, that could result in an I-owe-you from the US government that really exposes Americans to more risk abroad,” Vinograd said.
“And second, President Trump kicked this can down the road but that doesn’t get rid of the can. This invoice becomes a bargaining chip the North Koreans can use in any other negotiation,” she added.
By Zachary Cohen, CNN