The parents of American college student Otto Warmbier, who died last year shortly after being released from North Korean captivity, have sued dictator Kim Jong Un’s government, saying it “brutally tortured and murdered” their son.
The lawsuit, brought under a federal anti-terrorism law, accuses North Korea of holding Warmbier hostage to pressure the U.S. to end sanctions and allow Kim’s regime to continue its “weapons proliferation.”
It was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, two days after President Donald Trump called Kim an “honorable man” and the same day the White House released photos of Kim’s secret meeting nearly a month ago with then-CIA chief Mike Pompeo.
Fred and Cindy Warmbier’s lawsuit argues that the “rogue regime” took “Otto hostage for its own wrongful ends” and returned him to his family “in a nonresponsive state and brain dead.”
Fred Warmbier said in a statement that his son had been “used as a pawn and singled out for exceptionally harsh and brutal treatment by Kim Jong Un. Kim and his regime ... intentionally destroyed our son’s life.” The lawsuit is “another step in holding North Korea accountable for its barbaric treatment of Otto and our family,” the statement added.
The 22-year-old University of Virginia student died last June just six days after he was evacuated from North Korea. Doctors at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center said he had severe brain damage and was unresponsive.
Otto Warmbier was arrested in early 2016 after allegedly trying to steal a poster while on a group sightseeing tour in North Korea. He was sentenced to 15 years of hard labor.
In a painful interview last September on “Fox & Friends,” Fred Warmbier recalled the moment when he and his wife first saw their son returned from North Korea. The young man was lying on a stretcher, his father said, “jerking violently, making these inhuman sounds. ... He had a feeding tube coming out of his nose. He was staring blankly into space. ... He was blind. He was deaf. ... It looked like someone had taken a pair of pliers and rearranged his bottom teeth.”
“They destroyed him,” Cindy Warmbier added. “No mother, no parent, should ever have gone through what we went through. And the fact that Otto was alone all that time, with no one to comfort him, is inexcusable.”
Their lawsuit argues that North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier violated “all international standards of civilized human conduct and common decency.”
North Korea has said Warmbier developed brain damage after he contracted botulism and took a sleeping pill, but the suit asserts that American physicians found no trace of botulism.
The Warmbiers are seeking punitive damages, in an amount to be determined by the court, for their son’s treatment and their family’s emotional suffering.
Earlier in his presidency, Trump derided Kim as “Little Rocket Man” and threatened him if North Korea continued to test nuclear missiles. In his State of the Union address in January (which the Warmbiers attended), Trump slammed the “depraved character” of the North Korean regime and pledged to “honor Otto’s memory with American resolve.”
But Trump’s public assessment of Kim changed radically after the North Korean leader announced last week that he was suspending long-range missile launches and closing down one nuclear test site in the wake of that secret meeting with Pompeo, who has since been confirmed as secretary of state.
Kim has “really been very open and I think very honorable based on what we are seeing,” Trump told reporters on Tuesday. He added, “A lot is happening right now, and I think it’s going to be very positive.”
Three Americans are still being held in North Korea. It’s unclear how their situation — and the Warmbiers’ lawsuit — will impact the upcoming meeting between Trump and Kim. The Wall Street Journal reported that Kim appeared open to negotiating the Americans’ release as part of the talks with Trump.
The White House did not comment on the lawsuit. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that “Americans remain committed to honoring Otto’s memory and we will not forget the suffering of his parents.”