The parents of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who died last year after his detention in North Korea, have filed a wrongful-death suit against the North Korean government alleging their son was tortured and killed.
Warmbier, 22, was held in North Korea for 17 months before his medical evacuation to the United States last June. He died days after his return at University of Cincinnati Medical Center. At the time, doctors said Warmbier was “wakeful” but unresponsive and had a severe neurological injury.
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington on Thursday by his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier of Cincinnati.
McGuireWoods, the Richmond-based law firm representing the Warmbiers, released a statement from the family Thursday:
“Otto 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 22-page complaint names the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as the defendant and seeks damages, in an amount to be decided by the court, for injuries including pain and suffering, medical expenses, and loss of income.
“In an attempt to extract various concessions from the United States government, North Korea detained Otto, forced him to falsely ‘confess’ to an act of subversion on behalf of the United States government, tortured him, kept him in detention for a year and a half without allowing him to communicate with his family, and returned him to them in a non-responsive state and brain-dead,” the suit alleges.
The Warmbiers contend, “North Korea has repeatedly lied about the causes of Otto’s condition and refuses to acknowledge its abhorrent actions. In fact, North Korea, which is a rogue regime, took Otto hostage for its own wrongful ends and brutally tortured and murdered him.”
North Korea denied mistreating him and said that he had contracted botulism and fell into a coma after taking a sleeping pill. He had been in a coma for a year prior to his evacuation.
The suit was filed on the eve of a scheduled meeting between Presidents Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Moon Jae-in of South Korea. President Donald Trump may meet with Kim next month.
McGuireWoods’ Richard Cullen, one of the lawyers in the case, also represents Vice President Mike Pence. Fred Warmbier was a guest of Pence’s at the opening of the Winter Olympics in South Korea.
Trump acknowledged Warmbier’s family in his State of the Union address in January, and his parents received a standing ovation.
Warmbier was the salutatorian graduate of Wyoming High School (Ohio) in 2013, enrolling at U.Va. that same year. He was pursuing a major in economics and spent one summer studying at the London School of Economics.
Warmbier would have graduated from U.Va. last year. He traveled to Asia in December 2015 and took a tour to North Korea through Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based tour operator. He had planned to participate in a study-abroad program in Hong Kong for his spring semester.
The U.S. Department of State banned Americans from traveling there less than a month after Warmbier’s death.
His arrest occurred not long after new U.S. sanctions and shortly before North Korea detonated a nuclear bomb test and fired a long-range missile.
The suit alleges Warmbier was forced to read a false, televised “confession” that said, among other things, that he took down a political sign in the hotel where he was staying on behalf of a Methodist Church in Cincinnati — to be hung in the church as a trophy — in exchange for the promise of a used car.
The North Koreans also had Warmbier say his actions were encouraged by a secret society at U.Va.
“Otto was distraught during the conference, pleading for help to save his life several times and begging for forgiveness and to be returned home to his family,” the complaint says.
He was convicted of state subversion on March 16, 2016, during an hourlong trial and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
While he was held, the Warmbiers’ suit argues, North Korea demanded the U.S. remove sanctions and take various actions as a condition of his release.
The Warmbiers learned their son was in a coma early last June, not long before he returned home, and the suit describes the parents going to the aircraft on which Warmbier arrived.
“They were stunned to see his condition. Otto was blind and deaf. He 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.”
The suit brands the botulism claim as false and says that physicians in the U.S. found no evidence to support it.
U.S. law provides for such a suit in cases where, among other things, the defendant is a foreign state designated as a state sponsor of terrorism; the plaintiff is a U.S. national or legal representative of a U.S. national; or the defendant committed hostage taking, torture and/or killed someone, the Warmbiers contend.