US court orders North Korea to pay US$501 million in death of US student Otto Warmbier

A US court has ordered Pyongyang to pay US$501 million in damages for the torture and death US college student Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 after being released from a North Korea prison.
Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea, is taken to North Korea's top court in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo on March 16, 2016.
Otto Frederick Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was detained in North Korea, is taken to North Korea's top court in Pyongyang, North Korea, in this photo released by Kyodo on March 16, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - A US court on Monday (Dec 24)ordered Pyongyang to pay US$501 million (S$689 million) in damages for the torture and death US college student Otto Warmbier, who died shortly in 2017 after being released from a North Korea prison.

Warmbier's parents sued North Korea in April over their son's death. The 22-year-old student died in the United States days after being released from captivity in a coma. An Ohio coroner said the cause of death was lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.

"The plaintiffs' motion for default judgment is granted,"said Judge Beryl Howell of the US District Court for the District of Colombia in her ruling.

"North Korea is liable for the torture, hostage taking, and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier, and the injuries to his mother and father, Fred and Cindy Warmbier," Howell said.

Pyongyang has blamed botulism and ingestion of a sleeping pill for Warmbier's death and dismissed torture claims.

The ruling comes at a sensitive time in US-North Korea diplomatic relations, as the sides negotiate the dismantling of Pyongyang's weapons programme.

Judge Howell said North Korea did not submit any response to the lawsuit, which the family filed under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, a US law that allows lawsuits against foreign governments over offences not considered to be covered by diplomatic immunity. 

As one of the world’s most isolated countries, North Korea is believed to have few assets in the United States that could be seized to meet the judgment.  But North Korea is seeking to end economic sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme.

An accord with Trump raises the possibility of future US assistance, which could become entangled by the court-ordered damages.  Trump, who held a historic summit in June with North Korea, posted on Twitter that he had a briefing Monday on diplomatic efforts and is “looking forward to my next summit with Chairman Kim!”

Unrecognisable after release

Warmbier, an Ohio native who studied at the University of Virginia, travelled to North Korea on a tour but did not return home. He was pulled away at the Pyongyang airport and charged with crimes against the state for allegedly taking down a poster in support of Kim. 

The ruling said the family was continually advised by the State Department to stay quiet, believing North Korea would make a demand in return for Warmbier’s safe release.  When he finally returned home after 17 months, Warmbier – a high school prom king who was studying business and economics – was attached to a feeding tube and was howling incomprehensible noises, the ruling said. 

The head-shaven Warmbier had gone blind and deaf, his once straight teeth misaligned and his eyes bulging out, it said. 

The judge quoted his neurologist in Ohio, Daniel Kanter, as concluding that Warmbier probably suffered brain damage of the sort caused by a loss of blood flow to the brain of five to 20 minutes.  Based on previously known cases in which North Korea extracted confessions, Warmbier’s injuries could have been caused by water-boarding, electric shock, suffocation or pulling his teeth with pliers, Howell said. 

North Korea has denied ill-treatment of Warmbier, saying he contracted botulism, a nerve disorder caused by toxin poisoning, while in detention.  But the judge quoted medical tests that found no evidence of botulism.

And even if the diagnosis were true, the judge questioned why North Korea did not earlier send him back for medical care, a delay which she said “compounds the deliberate nature of the totalitarian state’s brutal treatment of Otto.”