In a symbolic victory in late December, a federal judge ordered the government of North Korea to pay $501 million in damages to the family of the late Otto Warmbier.
In 2016, Warmbier, then a University of Virginia student visiting North Korea, was arrested for what Pyongyang described as “a hostile act against the state,” for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster from the Yanggakdo International Hotel.
Warmbier’s family has stated Otto was tortured while imprisoned in North Korea, leaving him with brain damage including visual impairment, which directly led to his death in 2017.
Ruling in favor of Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy, who filed a $1.1 billion suit against Pyongyang in October 2018, U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell placed blame for Otto’s death on North Korea.
A default judgement, the government of North Korea neither entered an appearance, nor defended itself against the lawsuit.
Creating a “before-and-after” image of the younger Warmbier when indicting Pyongyang with negligence, Howell described the late college student as healthy and vibrant prior to visiting the hermit state, returning 18 months later near death.
Responding to Howell’s ruling, the Warmbier family released a statement which read:
“We are thankful that the United States has a fair and open judicial system so that the world can see that the Kim (Jong Un) regime is legally and morally responsible for Otto’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.”
Relying on new court documents which shed light on Warmbier’s trip, experts who offered analysis stated the confession Otto Warmbier read in custody was contrived and relied heavily on phrases known only to be used in the country.
Seized by North Korean security while awaiting his return trip home, Warmbier was later convicted for the theft of the poster from a restricted area at the the hotel in Pyongyang at which he was staying. He was sentenced to 15 years hard labor for the theft.
In June 2017, Warmbier was released from North Korean custody, but returned in a comatose state and died shortly after he arrived home in the U.S.
In her ruling, Howell stated the estate of Otto Warmbier should receive $21 million in compensatory damages, and another $150 million in punitive. Similarly, Howell stated Warmbier’s parents are due $15 million in compensatory damages, and a further $150 million in punitive damages.
While it is unclear whether the Warmbier family will recover damages, legal experts speculate they could be awarded North Korean assets in the U.S., currently totaling $63 million which are frozen.
[Cincinnati.com] [CNN] [Photo courtesy REUTERS/Kyodo]