US court orders North Korea to pay $500mn for Otto Warmbier’s ‘wrongful death’

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Detained US student Otto Warmbier is escorted by North Korean guards into a court in Pyongyang. (Photo by Reuters)

A US judge has ordered North Korea to pay more than $500 million to the parents of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died shortly after being released from detention in the Southeast Asian country.

US District Court for the District of Columbia Judge Beryl A. Howell ruled Monday that Pyongyang “shall be liable for damages in the amount of $501,134,683.80" for what the student’s parents insisted was his wrongful death, according to court documents.

Warmbier was arrested in 2016 as he tried to leave the North at the end of a five-day commercial tour. Warmbier, who was then a student at the University of Virginia, had reportedly tried to steal a political poster from a restricted floor in his hotel.

The student returned to the US in June 2017 after negotiations led by US President Donald Trump’s administration. It was said back then that the 22-year-old was deaf and blind and had sustained severe brain damage from his time in detention. He died less than a week later in his hometown of Cincinnati after going into a coma.

His parents, Fred and Cindy Warmbier, filed a lawsuit against the North Korean government in Washington last April, seeking $1 billion in damages, about 2.5 percent of North Korea's 2015 gross domestic product.

They claimed that Pyongyang had violated international law by forcing Otto to admit that he was carrying out an act of subversion on behalf of the US government. The lawsuit said the penalty was intended to prevent North Korea’s “unlawful behavior in future.”

The court ordered sum includes more than $21 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages that North Korea should pay the Warmbiers. The judge also ruled that each parent was entitled to "the sum of $15 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages."

The damages would likely be paid from North Korea's frozen assets in the US, which amounted to around $63 million last year, as stated in the US Treasury Department's Terrorist Assets Report.

This means all of the frozen assets would only pay for the compensatory damages and the Warmbiers would receive the rest of the large sum only if the Trump administration agrees to press Pyongyang to pay it.

North Korea has repeatedly denied accusations of torturing Warmbier in detention.

The court order adds a twist to an already complicated situation amid Trump's diplomatic push to denuclearize Pyongyang. The North has made it clear that it won't tolerate any pressure by the Trump administration in the process.

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