Two Democratic lawmakers have asked U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to provide details on the U.S. government's alleged promise to pay North Korea $2 million in connection with its release of an American detainee in 2017.
In a letter dated Friday, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked that the top U.S. diplomat address nine specific questions by May 17.
The questions center on the circumstances surrounding the release of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was detained in Pyongyang in early 2016 for allegedly trying to take down a political poster.
When a U.S. official came to secure his release in June 2017, the North Koreans demanded that the envoy, Joseph Yun, sign a pledge committing the U.S. government to pay $2 million for Warmbier's hospital bills, according to The Washington Post.
The report was later confirmed by Yun and U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, but both said no money was transferred. U.S. President Donald Trump also denied that any payment was made.
"While we of course share a belief that every effort should be made to secure the release of American citizens being held hostage by foreign entities, we are also concerned that the way in which this matter was handled may have created additional complications for U.S. national security interests, both in our diplomacy with North Korea and on other matters where the lives and livelihood of U.S. citizens are at stake," the lawmakers wrote in the letter.
Warmbier fell into a coma shortly after his arrest and spent the next year and a half hospitalized in the North. After being released, he was flown back to the U.S., where he died several days later.
"Who was the highest-ranking U.S. government official to authorize Ambassador Yun to sign for the payment, and through whom was this authorization transmitted to him?" the lawmakers asked. "In the (State) Department's view, would such a payment be allowed under current U.S. and (United Nations Security Council) sanctions?"
The letter also asked whether the Trump administration believes North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was aware of Warmbier's condition and was responsible for keeping him there until he was near death.
In February, Trump told a press conference following his second summit with Kim in Vietnam that he confronted the North Korean leader about Warmbier's death.
"He tells me he didn't know about it, and I take him at his word," Trump said at the time.
In their letter, the lawmakers asked Pompeo to assess the impact on future denuclearization negotiations with North Korea should the U.S. not follow through on its commitment to pay.
They also asked whether there are any circumstances under which the U.S. is still considering making good on its pledge.(Yonhap)