The family of an American student who died following detainment by North Korea should receive $240,000 from seized assets, a New York court ruled.
University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier, 22, died in 2017 after falling into a year-long coma following brain damage he suffered while in North Korean custody for an alleged “hostile act against the state.”
His parents sued North Korea over the death, with a judge in 2018 initially ruling that the hermit kingdom was liable for $501million in damages. District of Columbia Judge Beryl A. Howell deemed the punishment “appropriate” to “deter North Korea” for “torture, hostage-taking and extrajudicial killing,” but North Korea ignored the order.
But last week the Northern District Court of New York approved a seizure of funds from the country’s Korea Kwangson Banking Corp. (KKBC) in an “unopposed motion” after both North Korea and the bank failed to respond to court orders. Judge Lawrence Kahn ordered New York’s Office of the State Comptroller to turn over funds seized from the bank to Warmbier’s estate “on a final basis,” The Washington Post reported.
Warmbier had planned to move to New York City after graduation to work on Wall Street following an internship with financial firm Millstein and Company.
North Korean authorities arrested Warmbier in 2016 during an educational tour of North Korea. Warmbier had allegedly stolen a propaganda poster in a hotel on Jan. 1, 2016, leading to his arrest at Pyongyang’s airport as the group headed out of the country.
Warmbier appeared a month later in a tearful video “confession” to commit the “preplanned” crime, which North Korea considered a “hostile act against the state.” He fell into a coma in March of that year and finally returned to the U.S. in 2017 for treatment.
He died six days after his return to the U.S. His death and the extent of his brain damage shocked the nation. Many accused North Korea of beating and torturing Warmbier while in custody, but officials claimed instead that Warmbier had fallen ill after a severe allergic reaction to sedatives he took after becoming sick.
Some believe it is unlikely that any actual funds may result from the lawsuits, but supporters believe that the lawsuits raise awareness and pile on financial pressure on the country.
“It’s unlikely that we will be able to, in the near future, investigate or prosecute these human rights violation cases from North Korea,” Ethan Hee-Seok Shin, a legal analyst with Transitional Justice Working Group, told The Washington Post. “Having these civil lawsuits and being able to actually have these punitive damages or other financial penalties imposed on North Korea from a human rights angle, I think that’s pretty important.”