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US Judge Rules in Favor of the Otto Warmbier Family Against North Korea

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Published: January 23, 2022
The parents of Otto Warmbier, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, are acknowledged during the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump.
The parents of Otto Warmbier, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, are acknowledged during the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump. (Image: Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images)

A federal judge recently ruled in favor of the parents of Otto Warmbier in a case against the North Korean regime. Warmbier had been imprisoned in North Korea and then died in 2017 after his release. The judge awarded a quarter-million dollars to the family. The money was seized from a North Korean bank account in the United States. 

In 2016, Warmbier visited North Korea as part of an educational tour. He was soon arrested by authorities on charges of stealing a propaganda poster from a hostel. Warmbier was taken into custody at the Pyongyang airport on Jan. 1. 

A month later, he appeared in a video, crying and confessing to committing a preplanned crime. North Korea is known to force innocent people into fake confessions to a crime that they did not commit. In March, he fell into a coma. Warmbier came back to the United States in 2017 where he was sent to treatment. Six days later, he died.

The 22-year-old had suffered severe brain damage. North Korea was accused of physically torturing and beating Warmbier to the extent that his brain got damaged, a claim that Pyongyang officials denied. The North Korean administration alleged that Warmbier’s brain damage resulted from a severe allergic reaction after he took sedatives for becoming sick.

An MRI discovered that Warmbier’s brain was starved of oxygen. However, there were no signs of botulism, which North Korea claimed was a reason for his death. Doctors also found no bone fractures indicating that Warmbier might have been severely physically tortured.

Warmbier’s parents quickly sued North Korea. In 2018, a judge from the District of Columbia ruled that Pyongyang was liable to pay $501 million in damages, arguing that such a punishment was necessary to deter North Korea from taking hostages and indulging in extrajudicial killings. However, North Korea refused to comply with the order. The family had originally sued for $1 billion in damages.

On Jan. 13, a judge from the Northern District Court of New York ordered the seizure of assets from the Kwangson Banking Corporation that is connected to the North Korean regime. 

“Judgment is hereby entered in favor of the Plaintiffs/Judgment Creditors Cynthia Warmbier and Fredrerick Warmbier with respect to the Subject Funds in the sum of $240,336.41, plus any accrued interest thereon,” the order stated. The transfer is to be completed within 10 days.

Though many do not believe North Korea will pay the full compensation of $501 million, it is argued that such judgments are a way of raising awareness about Pyongyang’s horrible human rights abuses. 

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with the Seoul-based Transitional Justice Working Group, stated that such judgments will make life “a little more difficult” for the leaders in North Korea, including Kim Jong-un.

“It’s unlikely that we will be able to, in the near future, investigate or prosecute these human rights violation cases from North Korea… Having these civil lawsuits and being able to actually have these punitive damages or other financial penalties imposed on North Korea from a human rights angle, I think that’s pretty important,” Shin said.

In 2019, President Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un in a second summit between the two leaders. Trump condemned the “brutality of the North Korean regime,” though he didn’t believe Kim Jong-un knew about the torture of Warmbier.

“Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity,” Warmbier’s parents stated.