A federal court judge on Monday ordered North Korea to pay the parents of Otto Warmbier more than $500 million, holding the country accountable for the “barbaric mistreatment” and death of the University of Virginia student.
The case attracted international attention because Warmbier was seized by North Korea at a time of escalating tensions with the United States, and because of the horrific circumstances of the case: He entered North Korea a joyful, ambitious young man, and returned to the United States nearly a year and a half later with severe brain damage. In wrenching testimony last week, his family described the long months without any word, the joy they felt when the plane returning Warmbier touched down in Ohio in June 2017 -- and the shock and horror of seeing a beloved son and brother shattered beyond anything the family could imagine. He was unresponsive, howling and convulsing when they stepped onto the plane.
“There’s evil in this world,” Cindy Warmbier, his mother, told the court. “It’s North Korea.”
In a strongly worded opinion, Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said the large award was necessary to punish and deter North Korea for the “torture, hostage-taking, and extrajudicial killing” of Warmbier.
Before Warmbier went on what was intended to be a short visit to North Korea with a tour group, Howell wrote, “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.
“... He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to U.S. government officials for his final trip home.”
While experts debated whether the award money could be extracted, they agreed the ruling is important because it sends a strong message to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, that he cannot act with impunity.
“We are thankful that the United States has a fair and open judicial system so that the world can see that the Kim regime is legally and morally responsible for Otto’s death,” Cindy Warmbier and her husband, Fred, said in a statement Monday afternoon. “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.”
The family was courageous to bring the lawsuit, said Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor of Korean studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “It goes beyond seeking justice for their own son,” to try to punish North Korea and prevent future victims.
Warmbier was visiting the country in January 2016 when he was prevented from leaving, accused of attempting to steal a propaganda sign, and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a sham trial.
U.S. officials learned that he was in a coma and demanded his release. He died within days of his return in June 2017, after his family made the decision to discontinue medical interventions that were keeping him alive. Doctors said he had been in a coma for more than a year.
The coroner in Hamilton County, Ohio, who examined Warmbier said she could not determine what caused the lack of oxygen to his brain that put him into a coma, or the four-inch-long scar on his foot.
Howell cited testimony by Lee and other experts who said they think Warmbier was tortured for political reasons, and that the country often uses methods that leave no lasting physical trace.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier and the estate of their oldest son had sought more than $1 billion in damages from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with their attorneys from McGuireWoods arguing that the massive financial penalty would send a strong message to the country that it cannot take U.S. citizens hostage. The Trump administration placed North Korea on the list of state sponsors of terrorism in November 2017, after Warmbier’s death, making the extraordinary lawsuit possible.
Foreign countries generally have immunity from lawsuits in U.S. courts, but Howell noted that an exception for terrorism applied, given the “barbaric mistreatment” of Warmbier.
Howell agreed with the family’s attorneys, Richard Cullen, Benjamin Hatch and Rebecca Gantt, who had argued that Warmbier was used as a pawn in a high-stakes confrontation with the United States.
Based on the testimony, Howell concluded that “North Korea more likely than not barbarically tortured Otto to extract a false confession and then, after a proceeding characterized by North Korea as a ‘trial,’ used Otto’s lengthy sentence as leverage against the United States to further North Korea’s own foreign policy objectives.”
Howell demanded from North Korea $450 million in punitive damages as well as $51 million for the personal anguish and economic loss both Warmbier and his parents experienced. Howell said the extent of the young man’s suffering could be gleaned from reports on North Korean torture methods and the damage to his body.
“Otto excelled at all that he set out to do in his young life,” the judge wrote, and his nature “makes highly plausible that this success would have continued.”
“It’s important to send a signal,” said Jim Feinerman, associate dean for graduate and international law and a professor of Asian legal studies at Georgetown Law, especially in such a horrific case. But, he said, “the award will be difficult if not impossible to enforce."
Lee said it was a misconception that such rulings are just symbolic, a moral victory. “North Korea is not going to pay anything voluntarily” in response to the judgment, “but this is not a happy outcome for the North Korean state.” He noted a fund established to benefit U.S. victims of state-sponsored terror, which has more than $1 billion in assets. Banks in places such as China that conduct business with North Korea could be subject to fines for violating sanctions, he said, and he thinks there are other potential sources of money.
Feinerman said there’s a delicate diplomatic balance in such cases.
“Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey,” the Warmbiers said. They thanked everyone who knew and loved Otto, and “all those who supported us and our mission to hold Kim liable for his actions.”