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D.C. Court Awards $501 Million in Suit Against North Korea for Torture-Death of Prisoner

by Matt Clarke 

On December 24, 2018, a federal court awarded $501.1 million to the parents of Otto Warmbier after he was tried, convicted and imprisoned by North Korean officials in an attempt to extract concessions from the United States, and tortured to such an extent that he died days after being medically evacuated to the U.S.

Warmbier, an American citizen, took a tour of Asia in 2016 prior to beginning a study abroad program in Hong Kong during his junior year at the University of Virginia. 

His travels included a five-day guided tour of North Korea that was considered safe for Americans. Days before Warmbier arrived in North Korea, the U.S. announced new sanctions against that nation due to its weapons proliferation activities. When his tour group sought to leave the country, Warmbier was singled out and detained.

Four days later, North Korea claimed it had successfully tested a fusion bomb. There followed increasing tensions between the United States and North Korea, the testing of a North Korean long-range ballistic missile and additional sanctions imposed by the U.S.

On January 22, 2016, almost three weeks after his detention, North Korea announced that Warmbier had been arrested for perpetrating a hostile act against the country at the behest of the U.S. government. On February 29, 2016, Warmbier was forced to make a “confession” during a North Korean news conference.

In a scripted statement, he confessed to having taken down a poster with a political slogan from a staff-only part of the hotel where he was staying. The confession contained fantastical elements of his working for a church he was unaffiliated with and with the CIA, and being offered $10,000 for the poster. Just over two weeks later, following a one-hour staged trial, he was convicted of state subversion and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. 

North Korean prisons are known for their harsh conditions and physical abuse, but it appears Warmbier received special attention from his captors, possibly due to increasing tensions with the U.S. and the imposition of additional economic sanctions on North Korea. In June 2017, the State Department told Warmbier’s parents that he had been in a coma for over a year. On June 13, 2017, North Korea allowed his medical evacuation to the U.S.

When he arrived, Warmbier was not in a coma; he was awake, but blind, deaf and nonresponsive. He had a shaved head, a feeding tube protruded from his nose, and he was jerking violently and howling. His previously straight teeth had been rearranged, forced into abnormal positions, and he had a serious foot injury. 

Doctors determined that he had suffered severe neurological damage due to his brain having been deprived of blood flow for an extended period of time soon after his trial. They disproved North Korea’s claim that he had suffered from botulism. 

Doctors told Warmbier’s parents that he would never recover. They authorized a switch to palliative care, and he died on June 19, 2017 at the age of 22.

His parents, Cynthia and Frederick Warmbier, filed a federal lawsuit against North Korea pursuant to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1602, et seq., after President Trump re-designated North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. The district court found that North Korean officials had taken Warmbier hostage with the intent of extracting concessions from the U.S., and had fatally tortured him. Default judgment was entered and the court awarded $501,134,683.80 to Warmbier’s parents for economic losses, medical expenses, pain and suffering, solatium (emotional suffering) and punitive damages. Following the default judgment, the Warmbiers moved to enforce it in April 2019. The district court granted their motion, though it noted “the plaintiffs have not described the property against which attachment or execution is sought.” Whether or not the judgment can actually be enforced against North Korea is unknown. See: Warmbier v. Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, U.S.D.C. (D. D.C.), Case No. 1:18-cv-00977-BAH. 

Related legal case

Warmbier v. Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea