(JTA) — North Korea denied torturing Otto Warmbier, the American Jewish college student who was detained in the country for over a year and died shortly after returning home in a coma.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Friday called itself the “biggest victim” of the incident, insisting that Warmbier’s death was a mystery.
“The fact that Warmbier died suddenly in less than a week after his return to the U.S. in his normal state of health indicators is a mystery to us as well,” the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official Korean Central News Agency. “To make it clear, we are the biggest victim of this incident.”
They were the first official comments by the country on the state in which it returned Warmbier to his family.
The spokesman also said that the Obama administration never officially requested Warmbier’s release and refused to establish any kind of dialogue with North Korea.
Warmbier, 22, was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for stealing a propaganda poster on what North Korea claimed were orders from an Ohio Methodist church.
A spokesman for the family said this week that they chose not to disclose his Judaism during negotiations for his release so as not to antagonize North Korea, which believed he was affiliated with the church. Warmbier became active at the University of Virginia Hillel following a Birthright trip to Israel, during which he received a Hebrew name.
Some 2,000 people attended his funeral Thursday at Wyoming High School in Warmbier’s hometown near Cincinnati.
The spokesman said that North Korea treated Warmbier appropriately during his imprisonment.
“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 spokesman said.
North Korea said Warmbier slipped into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill, and that he had to be resuscitated. The University of Cincinnati Medical Center said it found no signs of botulism, but he may have suffered severe neurological damage, possibly as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest, according to The Washington Post.