Their Son Died After Being Held by North Korea. Now They Want a $500M Ship as Payment.

Otto Warmbier's parents are suing to use the 17,601-ton ship as partial payment of the $500 million settlement that North Korea owes them

by Trone Dowd
08 July 2019, 10:33pm

This article originally appeared on VICE US

The parents of Otto Warmbier are demanding compensation for the untimely death of their son, whether North Korea wants to cooperate or not.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier have filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of New York putting a legal claim on a North Korean bulk carrier ship seized by the U.S. government last year. The Ohio couple are asking that the 17,601-ton ship named the Wise Honest be used to pay off part of the $500 million settlement that North Korea owes the family, as determined by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia last December.

But North Korea has adamantly denied any responsibility in the 22-year-old student’s death in June 2017 a few days after he was returned to the U.S. from more than a year in North Korean detention. The family believes Otto was tortured and holds the socialist state accountable.

Seized assets could be the way the Warmbiers get compensation. There is a precedent for such lawsuits: Just two years ago, the acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney determined that a $500 million building on Fifth Avenue could be used to pay off fines related to violations of Iran sanctions.

The Wise Honest, which was North Korea’s second-largest merchant ship, was caught illegally transporting coal near American Samoa in April 2018. U.S. officials determined that the ship was using the trade profits to fund North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, violating rules set by U.N. and U.S. sanctions.

"We are committed to holding North Korea accountable for the death of our son Otto, and will work tirelessly to seize North Korean assets wherever they may be found," the Warmbiers said in a statement released Saturday.

Otto Warmbier was arrested during a study abroad trip to North Korea in January 2016 at Pyongyang International Airport for allegedly stealing propaganda posters. He was detained and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 before being returned to the U.S. in June 2017. When Otto arrived back home, however, he was blind, deaf and brain dead. His parents decided to remove his feeding tube. Warmbier died just six days after his return to the U.S.

A Hamilton County coroner could not identify what caused the college student’s death, but both U.S. officials and Warmbier’s parents have suspected that he was tortured during his 17 months in captivity.

According to the New York Daily News, North Korean officials called the seizure of the cargo ship a “gangster-like flagrant act of robbery,” and demanded that the vessel be returned “without hesitation.”

This is not the only time the Warmbiers made news recently. Earlier this year, President Donald Trump found himself in hot water after saying that he didn’t believe North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un was complicit in Otto’s death.

“What happened is horrible,” Trump said during the Hanoi Summit in February. “I really believe something very bad happened to him, and I don’t think that the top leadership knew about it. [...] I don’t believe he allowed that to happen. Prisons are rough. They are rough places and bad things happen. But I really don’t believe that he [Kim] knew about it.”

Trump went back on his statement on Twitter the next day, but not without sharp criticism from the Warmbier family.

"We have been respectful during this summit process,” Warmbier’s parents said in a statement. “Now we must speak out. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for the death of our son Otto. Kim and his evil regime are responsible for unimaginable cruelty and inhumanity. No excuses or lavish praise can change that."

Last month, a 29-year-old Australian student Alek Sigley was detained in North Korea for spreading anti-government sentiment over social media, according to the North Korean Central News Agency. Sigley, who was studying Korean literature at Kim Il Sung University, was deported from the country on July 4, after a week in detention.

Cover: In this March 16, 2016, file photo, American student Otto Warmbier, center, is escorted at the Supreme Court in Pyongyang. North Korea said on Nov. 16, 2018, that it is expelling American Bruce Byron Lowrance after he slipped unlawfully into the police state known for its anti-U.S. fervor. (AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin, File)