A federal judge on Monday awarded over $501 million in damages to the parents of Otto Warmbier, the American college student who died last year after suffering a severe brain injury while detained in North Korea, in a lawsuit they had filed against the autocratic regime.
Judge Beryl A. Howell of the United States District Court for the District of Columbia concluded that North Korea was “liable in the torture, hostage taking and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier,” who was returned to the United States in June 2017 in a vegetative state and died later that month when he was removed from life support. Judge Howell wrote in her ruling that “a larger award is appropriate to punish and deter North Korea.”
It is highly unlikely that his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, who filed the lawsuit, will see anything close to the full amount from North Korea, which has no formal diplomatic relations with the United States. The Trump administration could seek money for the Warmbiers as part of negotiations with North Korea over denuclearizing the country.
The Warmbiers’ lawsuit, filed in April, cast a glaring light on North Korea’s human rights abuses. It alleged that their son had been tortured so badly that he returned home deaf, blind and unable to communicate. When Mr. Warmbier’s family met him at an Ohio airport on June 13, 2017, they could hear “loud inhuman sounds” as they ascended the plane’s steps.
“Greta ‘ran off the plane screaming’ because Otto looked like a ‘monster,’ and not ‘Otto,’” Judge Howell wrote, referring to Mr. Warmbier’s sister. “Otto’s mother, too, ‘almost passed out’ upon seeing Otto.”
The total amount awarded included $96,000 for medical expenses, over $300 million in damages to Mr. Warmbier’s parents and $150 million in damages to Mr. Warmbier’s estate.
Mr. Warmbier, a junior at the University of Virginia who was majoring in economics, was detained by the North Korean authorities at the Pyongyang airport in January 2016 after a five-day visit there with a tour group. The authorities accused him of tearing down a propaganda poster from a restricted area of his hotel. In a televised news conference, Mr. Warmbier admitted to destroying the poster, a confession that his parents believe was coerced.
A short time later, a court convicted Mr. Warmbier and sentenced him to 15 years in a hard-labor prison. Judge Howell wrote that it was likely that Mr. Warmbier was severely injured while in custody and suffered a devastating brain injury around April 2016. The State Department advised the family not to speak publicly about their son during his captivity out of fear about how North Korea might react, the judge said.
North Korea denied any responsibility in Mr. Warmbier’s death and claimed that he had contracted botulism. But a doctor who examined Mr. Warmbier in Ohio found no indication of the illness, the judge said.
“The fact that North Korea continued to detain Otto in this severely compromised condition for over a year, rather than send him home earlier to obtain medical care, compounds the deliberate nature of that totalitarian state’s brutal treatment of Otto,” Judge Howell wrote.