The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In emotional hearing, Otto Warmbier’s family seeks to hold North Korea accountable for his death

American student Otto Warmbier speaks in February 2016 as he was presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)
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Greta Warmbier climbed the stairs onto the plane in summer 2017 ecstatic, thinking it was the happiest moment of her life: Her beloved brother Otto had come home, back in Ohio, freed from nearly 18 months of imprisonment in North Korea. She had so many things to tell him: Her braces had come off, she’d had her first boyfriend, she was starting to think about where to apply to college.

Then, over the roaring engine of the medical transport plane, she heard horrible sounds — screaming, crying, moaning. She saw her brother, strapped down because of his involuntary flailing, a tube in his nose, eyes bulging. He was howling as though in terrible pain. She ran off the plane screaming. Her mother, Cindy Warmbier, fell onto the tarmac, sobbing and dizzy from the shock.

In searing, emotional testimony Wednesday in federal court, the Warmbier family made their case against North Korea, and asked the judge to find the regime liable for taking 21-year-old Otto Warmbier hostage, torturing and killing him.

'Let’s bring it in’: Otto Warmbier’s family and friends celebrate his life at memorial

Fred and Cindy Warmbier and Otto Warmbier’s estate seek more than $1 billion in damages from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Trump administration placed North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in November 2017, which made the Warmbiers’ extraordinary lawsuit possible.

After so many months of helplessness and forced silence — with no contact with their son, and with State Department officials warning them that a chance remark could provoke retaliation against the prisoner — Wednesday was a day for them to speak out and demand justice.

“We’re here because we don’t fear North Korea anymore,” Fred Warmbier said. The regime has already done the worst it can do, he said.

Their testimony told how Otto Warmbier, a charismatic, athletic, hard-working and intellectually curious University of Virginia student, had visited North Korea as a tourist on his way to a study-abroad program and was not allowed to leave until U.S. officials learned he was in a coma and demanded his release. He died days after his return in June 2017, with severe brain damage and no awareness of his surroundings. Doctors said he had been in a coma for more than a year.

In the courtroom, family and friends from Ohio and the University of Virginia sobbed as they listened to the Warmbiers relive the ordeal, from the first moment of uneasiness in January 2016 when they hadn’t received an expected phone call from their son after his visit to North Korea, to months of agonizing silence amid escalating tensions between the United States and the authoritarian state.

The family’s attorneys said that Warmbier was used as a pawn in a high-stakes geopolitical fight, and that his seizure, forced confession and sham conviction coincided with provocations such as nuclear testing by North Korea and responses from the United States, including imposition of economic sanctions.

Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia did not rule Wednesday but asked questions of the Warmbier family and of experts. Those specialists testified about torture in North Korea and how many of the methods leave no lasting trace. The experts said they believe Warmbier was tortured for political ends.

Howell asked one scholar whether North Korea paid attention to such court cases, and he responded that they were closely watched — and that without a substantial financial deterrent, in his opinion the country would continue its pattern of seizing hostages.

North Korea has not responded to the lawsuit, and was deemed legally in default by the court this year.

A North Korean official said at the time of Warmbier’s death that claims of torture were baseless slander.

The coroner in Hamilton County, Ohio, who examined Warmbier after his family made the decision to discontinue medical interventions that were keeping him alive, said she could not determine what caused the initial lack of oxygen to his brain or a four-inch scar on his foot.

What happened to Otto Warmbier? When the unthinkable is unknowable.

A neurologist who examined Warmbier when he returned to the United States concluded he died because of a brain injury suffered more than a year before his return, and that blood flow must have stopped to the brain or been significantly reduced for five to 20 minutes. The brain injury was not the result of natural causes, and Warmbier had not had botulism, as the North Koreans said.

Two dentists submitted declarations that two of Warmbier’s lower front teeth, which had been straight and healthy, were significantly pushed in toward the back of his mouth at the time of his death.

Fred Warmbier made his son a promise when he died, he said Wednesday: “I’m here to ask the United States of America and this court to do justice for Otto.”

Otto Warmbier’s parents and siblings shared family photos as they told the court about the sweet, curious little boy who grew into a studious, driven, athletic and often goofy young man who loved to laugh. He was a blessing to his mother, who got pregnant at 35 after battling cancer. He was the impossible-to-live-up-to older brother but was kindhearted and lots of fun, his siblings said; so magnetic that his younger sister would try to follow him on his five-mile runs, just to be with him, or curl up in the corner of the sofa where he always studied, just to feel that warmth.

He was the one who planned a surprise climbing trip, the one who promised to come get Greta from choir camp when she was homesick, and the one who turned to Austin Warmbier on his 15th birthday and suggested, conspiratorially, that his car-obsessed little brother drive them to school that day.

He talked to his parents a few times a week from U-Va., always ending calls with, “I love you.” He was planning to work on Wall Street after graduation, and wanted to travel while he could in college before launching into 80-hour workweeks.

Amidst all the joy at U-Va.'s commencement, one person is missing: Otto Warmbier.

His attorneys showed video released from North Korea in 2016 in which Otto Warmbier “confessed” and was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Fred Warmbier looked down, and Cindy Warmbier turned her back on the screen as their son’s voice filled the courtroom, pleading for his life.

Young men — his close friends, now graduated from college, who had driven and flown in from across the country for the hearing — wiped away tears.

When the video was released, Cindy Warmbier said, she went to her bedroom and curled up in a ball.

She often tried to imagine what Otto Warmbier was thinking over those long months, trying to feel closer to him by looking up the weather in North Korea, checking the time, thinking what it would be like to hear only a foreign language all the time. “I tried to do anything to connect myself with Otto,” she said.

But as time went on, she felt a void rather than closeness: “I didn’t feel anything.”

When a State Department official called Fred Warmbier late one night and told him his son was in a coma, he felt crazy and frightened, he said. But the family, trying to stay positive, thought of Otto as asleep, perhaps in a medically induced coma from which he would awaken in a matter of days.

Then, on the plane, Fred Warmbier said, he saw his 6-foot-2-inch, 180-pound, good-looking son on the plane jerking violently, head shaved, howling, unresponsive. That he was wearing a U-Va. T-shirt only made it worse.

“Our beautiful boy,” Cindy Warmbier said Wednesday.