The father of University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier said Saturday that North Korea is not participating in the spirit of the 2018 Winter Olympics, criticizing the nation that held his son in captivity until he was released last year and died shortly after returning to the U.S.
“We have to put this in context in the spirit of the Olympics and why we’re here,” Fred Warmbier told NBC’s Lester Holt according to excerpts from an interview set to air in full Saturday evening. “And so when you put it that way they’re not really participating in the Olympics.”
He continued: “Their athletes are not exchanging ideas with other athletes in the Olympic Village or really participating, so that’s a political statement.”
Fred Warmbier is attending the Olympics as a guest of Vice President Mike Pence and member of the U.S. delegation.
Otto Warmbier was visiting North Korea in January 2016 when officials accused him of trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. Then age 21, Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor but was released 17 months later after sustaining significant brain damage. Doctors said he was unresponsive after being flown to the U.S. Warmbier died shortly thereafter.
Fred Warmbier denied the U.S.’s decision to have him as a guest was a political action.
“This is not political for me,” he said. “Their treatment of Otto is their standard, that’s the way they do business.”
The Obama administration sent tennis icon Billie Jean King and hockey player Caitlin Cahow, two openly gay athletes, to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. While not explicitly stated, their selection was viewed as a brushback against anti-gay laws in Russia.
Pence and second lady Karen Pence are returning to the U.S. on Saturday, after leading the U.S. delegation and attending meetings with Japanese President Shinzō Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the Olympics began. The vice president also spoke to U.S. troops stationed in Japan.
According to media reports, Pence avoided North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Jong Yo-jong, who attended the opening ceremonies and sat just feet away from the vice president. The Pences declined to stand for North Korean athletes during the opening ceremonies.
According to pool reports, Pence’s time in South Korea included a brief stop watching short-track speed skating. Clad in Team U.S.A. jackets, the Pences were joined later joined by Moon, Fred Warmbier and Sarah Hughes, the former Olympic figure skater, who is also part of the U.S. delegation.
Speaking to reporters on the flight back to the U.S., the vice president called his trip “substantive and successful.”
“My message in Japan, my message in South Korea, my message in meeting with leaders of both of those countries was that we are going to continue to stand together along with our other allies and partners to continue to intensify the economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea until they permanently abandon their nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Pence said.
He added that leading the Olympic delegation was a “great joy.”
“Let me lastly say it was a great joy for Karen and me to lead a delegation at the Olympics,” Pence said, “I think maybe our favorite time was among the athletes.”
In a possible sign of cooling tensions on the Korean peninsula, North Korea sent a delegation of 22 athletes to the Olympics, including members for a joint women’s hockey team with South Korea.