Otto Warmbier’s parents hope their lawsuit against North Korea, where the 22-year-old was imprisoned for 17 months before its government returned him home in a vegetative state, will allow them to strike a retaliatory blow against leader Kim Jong Un’s repressive regime more than a year after their son’s death.
“We are not going to be victims,” Cindy Warmbier, Otto’s mother, told the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Wednesday. “I want them to feel victimized.”
North Korea did not send a representative to the hearing.
Cindy Warmbier and her husband, Fred, filed suit against the country in April, seeking damages for wrongful death, emotional distress and the torture they believe was inflicted on their son.
"I'm going to stand up to evil when I see it,” she said. “There's nothing more evil than North Korea.”
Their two surviving children, Greta and Austin, testified that the family hoped for closure. Both described their brother as kind, intelligent and adventurous.
The last quality was the one that brought the Cincinnati native and Wyoming High School graduate to North Korea at the end of 2015. He planned to spend 2016 participating in a Hong Kong study-abroad program through the University of Virginia, where he studied economics and commerce, but had signed up to complete a five-day New Year’s tour of North Korea before continuing on.
Warmbier was arrested Jan. 2, 2016, as his tour group waited in line at Pyongyang International Airport. North Korean authorities claimed he had stolen a propaganda poster depicting deceased leader Kim Jong Il under orders from the United States government; they would later release a video confession in which he, apparently coerced, falsely admitted to doing so.
His one-hour trial ended in a conviction and a sentence to 15 years of hard labor.
Despite Cindy and Fred Warmbier’s frequent meetings with White House officials, little news of Otto’s status emerged until North Korea unexpectedly agreed to release him in June 2017.
He was awake but unresponsive when they did. North Korean officials claimed his condition was the result of botulism; his parents maintain it was a consequence of torture.
Otto was hospitalized at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center June 13, 2017, and taken off life support six days later. Doctors said he had sustained severe brain damage while detained, although they did not know how.
Fred Warmbier told the court Wednesday he promised his son in his final moments that he would seek justice for what had happened.
"We're here because we don't fear North Korea anymore,” he said. “They're cowards. They've done the worst they could do. This is the work of a coward.”
Two expert witnesses -- a Tufts University professor of Korean studies and the former executive director of Amnesty International -- testified in support of the family.
The North Korean government has denied mistreating Warmbier while he was in detention.