A federal judge ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million on Monday in a wrongful death suit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died shortly after being released from that country.
Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster. He died in June 2017, shortly after he returned to the U.S. in a coma and showing apparent signs of torture while in custody.
The judgment is largely a symbolic victory for now, since there is no mechanism to force North Korea to pay.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were thankful that that the court found the government of Kim Jong Un “legally and morally” responsible for their son’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,” they said in a joint statement. “Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey.”
The lawsuit, filed in April, describes in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier endured in North Korean custody.
When his parents boarded a plane to see him upon arrival in the U.S., they were “stunned to see his condition,” according to court documents.
The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family’s attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scarred wound on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electrocution.
A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, likely from a loss of blood flow to the brain for 5-20 minutes.
The complaint also said Warmbier, who was from a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, was pressured to make a televised confession and then convicted of subversion after a one-hour trial. He was denied communication with his family. In early June 2017, Warmbier’s parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for one year.