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North Korea Bills U.S. $2 Million For Otto Warmbier's Health Care


Otto Warmbier had traveled to North Korea as a college student and tourist. He was arrested and convicted for taking down a sign in a Pyongyang hotel. When he returned home a year and a half later in 2017, he was in a coma. And we're learning today before U.S. officials were able to take him home, they had to promise North Korea they would pay a $2 million bill for the care he received in the hospital.

That comes from The Washington Post's Anna Fifield. She broke the story and joins us now. To begin, let's talk about what the U.S. medical team learned when they arrived and found Otto Warmbier.

ANNA FIFIELD: Right. When the emergency doctor walked into that hospital room in Pyongyang, he found Otto Warmbier lying on a hospital bed there in a vegetative state. He was unresponsive. And Otto had a feeding tube going into his nose. But the question remains. You know, what is it that rendered him into that unconscious state in the first place?

CORNISH: At what point did they present this hospital bill, and was it something that affected the negotiation of his release?

FIFIELD: After the doctor had examined Otto Warmbier, the doctor was asked to write a report basically testifying that the North Koreans had taken good care of Otto Warmbier. Then they turned to Joseph Yun, who was their lead State Department envoy there, and said they would be giving him a $2 million medical bill since they had taken such good care of him. It was kind of a setup there. Joseph Yun was told that he would not be able to repatriate Otto without that bill being signed. He then went and called his boss, Rex Tillerson, who called President Trump. And that authorization was given because they wanted to get Otto Warmbier home and were going to do whatever it took.

CORNISH: Did the U.S. end up paying this bill?

FIFIELD: My understanding is that that bill went to the Treasury Department, and it remained there unpaid. But we have not been able to get any update on that end to find out whether, for example, the North Koreans insisted on payment as a condition for the diplomatic talks that took place the next year when Donald Trump first went to Singapore to meet Kim Jong Un.

CORNISH: What did the White House have to say about this? How did they respond to this reporting?

FIFIELD: They declined to comment on my reporting. They said that they don't comment on hostage negotiations, which is why we're so successful - is what Sarah Sanders wrote and emailed to me.

CORNISH: So how are you able to verify the existence of this bill?

FIFIELD: Through the course of my reporting, I discovered the existence of this invoice. But my sources did speak to me on condition of anonymity, so I have to preserve that.

CORNISH: Does this cast any new context on President Trump's comments back in February? This is when he said that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had told him that he had no involvement in what happened to Warmbier. Trump said that he believed him.

FIFIELD: In a one-man autocracy like North Korea, it is just impossible to think that with such a high profile case with a healthy, young man rendered in a coma in North Korea and with this high-stakes diplomatic process going on, it's unconscionable to think that Kim Jong Un did not know about what was going on and did not authorize things each step of the way.

CORNISH: What has been the response from the Warmbier family?

FIFIELD: The Warmbier family did not know about this hospital bill until I called Fred Warmbier, Otto's father, and asked him about it. And he was quite shocked of course. They consider that their son was murdered, was tortured by the Kim regime. So they were quite incredulous that North Korea having, you know, turned their son into this vegetative state and then, you know - which led to his death shortly after his repatriation, would have the audacity then to go ahead and try to claim further medical expenses for looking after him when, you know, he should not have been in that state in the first place. And once he had fallen into a coma, you would have thought that North Korea would send him home to America where he could have at least gotten good medical care.

CORNISH: Anna Fifield of The Washington Post, thanks for sharing your reporting.

FIFIELD: Thanks for having me on, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.