The parents of Otto Warmbier, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, have filed a claim for a North Korean cargo ship, that was seized by the U.S. in May 2019 for alleged violations of American law and international law, to pay off part of the family’s $500 million judgment against North Korea.
Otto Warmbier was a student at the University of Virginia who was imprisoned in North Korea in January 2016, after being accused of attempting to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel.
He was later freed in June 2017, but returned to the U.S. in a vegetative state: “blind, deaf, and brain dead.” A hospital proclaimed that he suffered a “severe neurological injury,” while he is also said to have been in a coma for roughly one year.
North Korea claimed that Warmbier had contracted botulism, but his physicians in the U.S. found no evidence of that.
Otto Warmbier died six days later on June 19, 2017, after his return to the U.S. and after his parents had requested that his feeding tube be removed.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier then filed a lawsuit in April 2018 against the North Korean government, contending that North Korea is liable for Warmbier’s “extrajudicial killing.” A federal judge in Washington awarded $500 million in damages to the family.
After the court order, some law professors, such as Professor Jim Feinerman at Georgetown Law, claimed that the ruling was largely a symbolic victory because “the award will be difficult if not impossible to enforce.”
VOA News stated at the time, “The judgement may be mostly a symbolic victory since North Korea has yet to respond to any of the allegations in court and there’s no practical mechanism to force it do so.”
“But the family may nonetheless be able to recoup damages through a Justice Department-administered fund for victims of state-sponsored acts of terrorism, and may look to seize other assets held by the country outside of North Korea,” VOA News added.
Now might be the time that Fred and Cindy Warmbier could receive part of their $500 million.
The seized North Korean ship, called the Wise Honest, was the first time the United States seized a North Korean cargo vessel for international sanction violations. It was originally used to export North Korean coal and to import heavy machinery.
According to John C. Demers, the head of the Justice Department’s national security division, the Wise Honest was the second-largest cargo ship in North Korea’s fleet, and the value of the ship is multiplied each time North Korea evades sanctions.
In May 2019, North Korea demanded the return of the Wise Honest, calling the seizure a “flagrant act of robbery” that violated the spirit of the 2018 North Korea-United States Singapore Summit.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry stated, “The United States must mull over what repercussions its gangster-like act will entail, and must return our vessel without delay.”
It remains unclear what actions the Trump administration will take.
Cindy Warmbier previously called President Trump’s outreach to North Korea a “charade,” adding that “unless we keep the pressure on North Korea, they are not going to change, and I am very afraid they are going to let up on this pressure.”
President Trump also does not share Fred and Cindy Warmbier’s belief that Kim Jong-un was responsible for the death of Otto Warmbier. In March 2019, he stated, “I believe something very bad happened to him. I don’t think leadership knew about it.”
However, he added that he still held “North Korea responsible for Otto Warmbier’s mistreatment and death.”
The meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week pushed forward dialogue for denuclearization. In this optimistic climate between the top leaders, a court order may be insufficient to achieve compensation for the Warmbier family.