North Korea has been asked to pay $500m over the death. Picture: AFP PHOTO / KCNA / KCNA VIA KNS
North Korea has been asked to pay $500m over the death. Picture: AFP PHOTO / KCNA / KCNA VIA KNS

North Korea ordered to pay $500m

A federal judge in the United States has ordered North Korea to pay more than US$500 million (A$710 million) in wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American university student who died shortly after being released by the totalitarian state.

Judge Beryl Howell concluded North Korea was "liable in the torture, hostage taking and extrajudicial killing of Otto Warmbier", and ruled Kim Jong-un's regime should pay damages to Fred and Cindy Warmbier.

She said the massive dollar amount was "appropriate to punish and deter" North Korea.

However it is largely a symbolic victory for Otto's family, as there is no mechanism through which the country can be forced to pay.

Otto died in June last year, just six days after he flew home from North Korea with severe brain damage.

His parents' lawsuit alleged he had arrived in the United States deaf, blind and unable to communicate.

North Korea has consistently maintained its story that the 22-year-old University of Virginia student contracted botulism, a rare condition which causes bacteria to attack vital organs in the body, but American doctors have definitively ruled that out.

"We have no certain or verifiable knowledge of the cause or circumstances of his neurological injury. This pattern of brain injury however is usually seen as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest where the blood supply to the brain is inadequate, resulting in the death of brain tissue," they concluded.

Otto had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labour in North Korea for supposedly stealing a propaganda poster.

The student died a week after he release from jail. Picture: AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin
The student died a week after he release from jail. Picture: AP Photo/Jon Chol Jin

Otto's parents have given several emotional interviews describing the moment he returned home.

The first time they saw him, their son was making a "howling, involuntary, inhuman sound".

"We weren't really certain what it was. We climbed to the top of the steps, we looked in and Otto was on the stretcher across the plane and he was jerking violently making these inhuman sounds," Fred Warmbier said.

"Cindy and Greta ran off the plane. Austin and I walked over to Otto. He had a shaved head, he had a feeding tube coming out of his nose. He was staring blankly into space, jerking violently. He was blind, he was deaf. As we looked at him and tried to comfort him."

He said Otto's bottom teeth looked like they had been removed with a pair of pliers and rearranged.

US President Donald Trump said Otto was "tortured beyond belief" by North Korea.

Reacting to today's judgment, Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were thankful the court had found Kim Jong-un's government "legally and morally" responsible for their son's death.

"We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him," they said in a joint statement.

"Today's thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey."

The lawsuit, filed in April, described in new and horrific detail the physical abuse Otto had endured in North Korean custody.

The propaganda sign Otto Warmbier attempted to take from his hotel.
The propaganda sign Otto Warmbier attempted to take from his hotel.

When Fred and Cindy boarded the plane, Otto's arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family's attempts to comfort him.

His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scarred wound on his foot.

An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electrocution.

A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, likely from a loss of blood flow to the brain for 5-20 minutes.

The complaint also said Otto was pressured to make a televised confession, and then convicted of subversion after a one-hour trial.

He was denied communication with his family.

In early June 2017, Mr Warmbier's parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for an entire year.

Mr Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II
Mr Warmbier’s parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier. Picture: AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

"Before Otto traveled with a tour group on a five- day trip to North Korea, he was a healthy, athletic student of economics and business in his junior year at the University of Virginia, with 'big dreams' and both the smarts and people skills to make him his high school class salutatorian, homecoming king, and prom king," Judge Howell wrote.

"He was blind, deaf, and brain dead when North Korea turned him over to US government officials for his final trip home."

Otto's arrest, detention and death came during a time of heightened tension between the United States and North Korea over the isolated country's nuclear weapons program.

Mr Trump held a summit with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un in June this year, and is planning another for next year.

The two leaders emerged from their meeting in Singapore claiming to have reached a denuclearisation deal, but it was light on detail.

This week North Korea said it would not denuclearise unless the United States removed its own nuclear "threat" from the Korean Peninsula.

- with AP


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