Yellow Ribbon Project

Otto Warmbier's Parents Sue North Korea for Wrongful Death

The casket of Otto Warmbier is carried from Wyoming High School after his funeral June 22, 2017, in Wyoming, Ohio. (AP Photo/Bryan Woolston)

WASHINGTON — The family of a 22-year-old University of Virginia student held hostage by North Korea and returned to the United States just days before he passed away has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Kim Jong-un’s regime for his brutal torture and murder.

Otto Warmbier, who visited the communist regime as part of a tour group, was seized by North Korean officials on Jan. 2, 2016, before his flight was supposed to take off from Pyongyang. He was paraded before cameras the next month for a tearful “confession,” admitting he took down a banner that was hanging in the hall of his hotel. “I made the worst mistake of my life,” he said.

North Korea claimed the student took the poster as a “hostile act” to disturb DPRK unity at the behest of the CIA, a college group and a church in his home state of Ohio. He was sentenced in March 2016 to 15 years of hard labor and reportedly fell into a coma shortly after his sentence began.

“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,” his parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, said in a statement today. “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 lawsuit comes as President Trump intends to talk denuclearization with Kim. It also comes as three Americans are still held hostage by North Korea.

Kim Dong Chul, a businessman and naturalized U.S. citizen who previously lived in Fairfax, Va., was arrested in North Korea’s special economic zone in October 2015 and accused of spying for the South Koreans, which Seoul denied. In a forced confession, Kim said he was guilty of espionage and spreading Christianity. Kim, 64, was sentenced to 10 years of hard labor.

Tony Kim, also known as Kim Sang-duk, 59, was a professor at China’s Yanbian University of Science and Technology who had been visiting to teach at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, the only private college in the country with a sizable foreign staff, for a period of several weeks. Kim had also been a humanitarian aid worker in North Korea and helped deliver critical foreign aid to regions devastated by 2016 floods. He and his wife were arrested in April as they tried to fly out of the country; she was released while he was detained and accused of committing hostile acts.

Kim Hak-Song, 55, was working in agricultural development at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, managing experimental research to address the country’s food shortage. He was arrested in May. Like Kim Dong Chul, Tony Kim and former hostage Kenneth Bae, Kim Hak-Song is a Christian.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in D.C. states that the Warmbiers were notified by the State Department in June 2017 that Otto had been in a coma for a year.

“Otto’s parents were at the airport in Cincinnati when the plane carrying Otto landed. When they arrived on the plane, 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 lawsuit states. “They also noticed that his once straight teeth were now misaligned and had been forced into abnormal positions, particularly in the front of his mouth.”

“Otto was transported to the medical center at UC Health where physicians conducted a number of tests. Based on those tests and their observations, they concluded that he was severely brain damaged and that his condition was unrecoverable. They also concluded that his extensive loss of brain tissue was caused by an earlier hypoxic-ischemic brain injury caused by the cessation or severe reduction of blood flow to the brain. When Otto originally traveled to North Korea, he was a healthy and physically active young man and had no physical condition that would cause the cessation or severe reduction of blood flow to the brain that occurred while he was in North Korean custody.”

The court filing notes that “a highly incomplete set of medical records that arrived from North Korea with Otto showed that brain damage existed on a scan dated April 2016, a month after his trial.”

“Otto’s family and physicians also observed a scarred wound on Otto’s left foot, not present prior to his departure for Asia in December 2015,” the lawsuit adds. “North Korea has offered no explanation for this wound.”