A federal judge in the United States has ordered Pyongyang to pay $501m in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died last year shortly after being released from North Korea.
US District Judge Beryl Howell on Monday harshly condemned North Korea for “barbaric mistreatment” of Warmbier in agreeing with his family that the country should be held liable for his death in June 2017.
She awarded punitive damages and payments covering medical expenses, economic loss and pain and suffering to Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who alleged that their son had been held hostage and tortured.
The judgment may be mostly symbolic since North Korea has yet to respond to any of the allegations in court and there’s no practical mechanism to force it to do so.
But the family may nonetheless be able to recoup damages through a Justice Department-administered fund for victims of state-sponsored acts of “terrorism”, and may look to seize other assets held by the country outside of North Korea.
Warmbier, 22, was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster. He died in June 2017, shortly after he returned to the US in a coma and showing apparent signs of torture while in custody.
In holding the North Korean government liable, Howell accused it of seizing Warmbier for “use as a pawn in that totalitarian state’s global shenanigans and face-off” with the US.
“Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five-day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with ‘big dreams’ and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king,” the judge wrote. “He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to US government officials for his final trip home.”
The arrest and death of Warmbier came during a time of heightened tension between the US and North Korea over the latter’s nuclear weapons programme. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un met in a landmark summit in June in Singapore, and there are plans for another meeting next year.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who are from a suburb of Cincinnati, said they were thankful the court found Kim’s government “legally and morally” responsible for their son’s death.
“We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him,” they said in a statement. “Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey.”
The lawsuit, filed in April, describes in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier allegedly endured in the North Korean custody. When his parents boarded a plane to see him upon arrival in the US, they were “stunned to see his condition”, court documents say.
The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family’s attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scar on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electric shock.
A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, probably from a loss of blood flow to the brain for five to 20 minutes.
North Korea has denied that Warmbier was tortured and has said he contracted botulism in custody, though medical experts said there was no evidence of that.
The complaint also said Warmbier was pressed to make a televised confession, then convicted of subversion after a short trial. He was denied communication with his family. In June 2017, his parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for one year.
Though foreign nations are generally immune from being sued in the US courts, Howell cited several exceptions that she said allowed the case to move forward and for her to hold North Korea liable. Those include the fact that North Korea has been designated by the US as a sponsor of “terrorism”, that the Warmbiers are US citizens and that North Koreans’ conduct amounts to torture and hostage-taking.
The damages awarded by Howell to the Warmbiers and to Otto Warmbier’s estate include punitive damages as well as damages for economic losses, pain and suffering and medical expenses.