The family of Otto Warmbier filed an extraordinary lawsuit against North Korea in federal court Thursday alleging that the 22-year-old college student was “brutally tortured and murdered” by Kim Jong Un’s “criminal” regime during 17 months in captivity.
The action aims to hold Kim’s regime legally accountable for their son’s death, but the timing also raises significant geopolitical implications, coming weeks before an expected meeting between President Trump and the North Korean leader in late May or early June. It also comes a day before a high-stakes inter-Korean summit between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which is widely viewed as a crucial prelude to the potential denuclearization talks between Trump and Kim.
Trump has raised Warmbier’s death repeatedly in public statements and made his case a cornerstone of his administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on Pyongyang, which the president has credited for bringing Kim to the negotiating table. Trump has pledged to raise human rights in his talks with Kim, but some South Korean officials fear that doing so publicly could complicate the sensitive diplomatic efforts underway.
In a statement, Fred Warmbier said his son was “taken hostage, kept as a prisoner for political purposes, used as a pawn and singled out for exceptionally harsh and brutal treatment by Kim Jong Un. Kim and his regime have portrayed themselves as innocent, while they intentionally destroyed our son’s life. This lawsuit is another step in holding North Korea accountable for its barbaric treatment of Otto and our family.”
The Warmbier family is represented by McGuireWoods, and a lead attorney in the case, Richard Cullen, also represents Vice President Pence, who has spoken out against the North’s treatment of Warmbier and its record of human rights abuses. Fred Warmbier accompanied Pence as part of the U.S. delegation to the Opening Ceremony of the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, in February.
The White House and Pence’s office are supportive of the lawsuit but did not have a role in drafting it, according to a person close to both sides.
Trump “spoke clearly about the pain that all Americans felt when we lost Otto Warmbier. That feeling of loss has not changed,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “Although this is a private legal action to which the United States government is not a party, Americans remain committed to honoring Otto’s memory, and we will not forget the suffering of his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier.”
Trump has eviscerated the North for its treatment of Warmbier, raising his death last fall during speeches at the United Nations in New York and to South Korea’s National Assembly in Seoul. But more recently, Trump, who last year belittled Kim as “Little Rocket Man,” has tamped down his bellicose rhetoric in a bid to ease tensions ahead of the summit.
“He really has been very open and, I think, very honorable from everything we’re seeing,” Trump told reporters of Kim on Tuesday, during a meeting at the White House with French President Emmanuel Macron.
Critics have warned that Trump, who is eager for a deal on one of his top foreign policy priorities, risks giving up too much to Kim, who announced last week he was freezing nuclear weapons testing and closing down one nuclear site. White House aides said they remain skeptical of Kim’s motives, suggesting he is taking easily reversible steps for public relations value, but Trump has been more enthusiastic about the “progress” that is taking place.
Asked about his praise of Kim during a news conference Tuesday, Trump defended his North Korea strategy, professing that “a lot is happening right now, and I think it’s going to be very positive.”
Trump emphasized the economic sanctions his administration has levied on Pyongyang and said that his goal remains “denuclearization” of North Korea.
“A lot of concessions have already been made,” he said, referring to actions by Pyongyang. “We have made no concessions, despite some of the media saying that I’ve made concessions. I don’t — I haven’t even discussed a concession other than the fact that meeting is a great thing.”
In a phone interview with “Fox & Friends” on Thursday, Trump again expressed bewilderment that critics have accused him of giving up too much. “I’ve never given up anything,” he said. “People have to understand the news is so unfair.”
North Korea has been an authoritarian state since its founding in 1948, leaving much of the nation’s 25 million people without sufficient food and electricity. The regime has killed suspected political opponents and is thought to have orchestrated the assassination of Kim’s half brother, Kim Jong Nam, at a Malaysian airport last year.
The Trump administration placed the North on the state-sponsors-of-terrorism list in November, opening the door for the Warmbiers’ lawsuit.
Three Americans remain in captivity in North Korea, and Trump has said his administration is working to secure their release. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who was confirmed by the Senate on Thursday as secretary of state, traveled to Pyongyang over Easter weekend and met with Kim, and he reportedly raised the issue of detainees with North Korean officials.
But Trump has not called their release a precondition of his summit with Kim.
In their lawsuit, Fred and Cynthia Warmbier said their son traveled to the North in December 2015 as part of a program run by Young Pioneer Tours, “a China-based operator that catered to Westerners.”
Otto, according to the complaint, “believed this was an opportunity to understand how people lived in one of the only closed societies in the world.” But when the group attempted to depart after five days, Otto was detained at the Pyongyang airport “without explanation.” Four days later, the North conducted a successful test of a nuclear hydrogen bomb.
Warmbier was used as leverage in the rogue nation’s geopolitical disagreements with the United States, according to the lawsuit.
The legal filing states that North Korean officials forced Warmbier to make a false statement in which he confessed to invented accusations that he was operating as a spy connected to the CIA. He was released 17 ½ months later in a deep coma, blind, deaf, with a wound on his foot and damage to his teeth, the lawsuit states.
When his parents met him at the Cincinnati airport, Warmbier “had a shaved head, a feeding tube coming out of his nose, was jerking violently and howling, and was completely unresponsive to any of their efforts to comfort him.” North Korean officials disavowed responsibility, asserting that Warmbier had contracted botulism.
The lawsuit asks for a monetary award to be determined by the court for punitive damages related to Warmbier’s mistreatment and death, and the emotional suffering of his family. The money could come from a fund, created by Congress in 2015 and administered by the Justice Department, to compensate victims of state-sponsored terrorism.
Victor Cha, who served as a high-ranking Asia policy official in the George W. Bush administration, said Thursday that the Trump administration should not shy away from raising human rights issues during its negotiations with North Korea.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago in South Florida last week, pressed the president to raise with Kim the 13 unresolved cases of Japanese citizens who were abducted by North Korean operatives in the 1970s and 1980s. Numerous South Koreans also have been abducted.
“We can never have a normal relationship with North Korea unless the human rights issues are addressed,” said Cha, now a Korea expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We can’t sweep this under the rug.”